September 27, 2009
The first Montreal Stop Motion Film Festival will take place on October 24th and 25th. If you already have a stop motion film, you still have a few days left to submit your film. There are no submission fees (but you should read the rules first). Submit your film by September 30th!

In addition to submitting your professional, independent or academic film, you'll need to:
  • Complete the submission form.
  • Provide 2 images from the film.
  • Provide a photo of the director.
The festival is the brainchild of Erik Goulet, one of the most enthusiastic supporters of animation in the city, especially if it's pixillated or has an armature or clay in it. After a long stint at Softimage, Erik is now an instructor at Concordia University's Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema in the Film Animation program. He created the Stop Motion Award to further raise visibility of the art and technique.

(Erik has also contributed to fps in the past, interviewing Ray Harryhausen in the first online issue of fps.)

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July 6, 2009
In addition to the opening film and animation highlights revealed by the 2009 Fantasia festival, the rest of the films do not merely round out the animation portion of programming. These selections reflect some of the more interesting selections of on the cinematic edge.

The features, in addition to Genius Party Beyond, Hells, and Les Lascars:
  • Edison and Leo, the first Canadian stop-motion feature, is described as a "surprising chunk of steampunk fun, a revisionist, retro science-fiction thriller with a zesty dash of decidedly adult gags." OK, I'm in.
  • anime features Eureka Seven and Evangelion 1.0
The shorts, in addition to those in Tokyo OnlyPic 2008, Celluloid Experiments 2009, DJ XL5's Razzle Dazzle Zappin' Party:
Also of note:
Bon festival!

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May 14, 2009

It wasn't that long ago that we found ourselves in the cinema, dazzled by Coraline in 3-D on the big screen. Well, in a couple months time, July 21st to be exact, we'll be able to re-live our experiences as best as current home theatre tech will along when Henry Selick's stop motion adaptation of Neil Gaiman's story comes to Blu-ray and DVD in 3-D!

While the DVD versions will no doubt suffice, we recommend the Blu-ray edition for added clarity and definition as well as a host of exclusive special features such as deleted scenes, tours and voice sessions, and animatic picture-in-picture.

Get all of the details of the Coraline Blu-ray here: The Blu-ray Blog

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April 15, 2009
Via Pink Tentacle, we have this great stop-motion video by Takeuchi Tajin called "A Wolf Loves Pork."

Wait until about :50, when things turn from "traditional Sesame Street palate cleanser" to "unexpectedly awesome."

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February 5, 2009
Coraline, the first stop-motion feature film to be presented in 3D, is being released in North American theaters on 6 February 2009. Neil Gaiman, author of the multiple award-winning novel upon which the film is based, stopped briefly in Montreal on his promotional tour for the film. I had the pleasure of sitting down and talking with him about the choice of animation versus live action for interpreting Coraline and The Graveyard Book, as well as some of his ideas about animated adaptations of his other works.

Arin Murphy: You’ve explained that Coraline was very firmly a stop-motion idea in your head. Your Newbery-award winning novel The Graveyard Book has been optioned by Neil Jordan, who’s going to be doing a live-action adaptation of it. Did it ever cross your mind that that could be done in animation of some form?

Neil Gaiman: No. No, I wanted what I was seeing in my head. For The Graveyard Book I’ve always seen real people, and part of the fun will be how they’ll do the ghosts. But the idea of making anything less than very, very real people and sets in which you can walk around and tap on headstones – it just seems wrong. On the other hand, now, I would love to do something like The Wolves in the Walls as animation. Whether 2D or 3D or stop-motion — as long as it felt like Dave McKean, that would be amazing. Henry and I have started chatting in a lazy kind of way about Odd & The Frost Giants as an animated project. That may well work as a cool animated idea. So I think there are definitely things of mine out there that I do want animated… I just didn’t want The Graveyard Book. For me, in my head, it’s live-action.

I think it’s wonderful that as an author you can say, “I feel this about this book,” and people will actually say, “Great, let’s actually explore that direction.”

I think it’s so incredibly lucky. I think as well there’s part of me that worries that if you made Coraline as a live-action film and really made it well, you’d end up with The Shining for kids. You would wind up with something… I don’t know if you’ve been on the Coraline website, but they have this wonderful thing where you can put buttons over your eyes?

Yes, I can’t bring myself to do it.

It’s really disturbing. It’s so much more disturbing. The fact that these [stop-motion puppets] are little dolls and you kind of know that they don’t have [real] eyes behind the buttons… that somehow makes it kind of okay. [pause] Not very okay, but kind of okay. They have buttons. Doing that with real human beings might be really seriously disturbing.

Well, there’s that one moment in the film where they say, “If you want to stay with us, all you need to do is…” and they push the buttons across to her. In the book that gave me pause as well, because when you read it, you visualize it. If you saw a real live flesh and blood person with buttons sewn in their eyes—well, just think about your button trailer!


Everything’s fine until you actually put the buttons up, and then you smile—

And I have no idea how actually sinister that smile would have been without the buttons there. There was this weird thing where I knew that if I just put buttons up in the right way, and I did the [demonstrates] smile, it was going to be absolutely terrifying. Just for a moment.

Yup. It worked.

Shouldn’t have done, but it did.

Thank you so very, very much.

You are so very welcome. Thank you for coming.

Previously on fps:

Interview With Neil Gaiman, Part One
Coraline (review)

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February 4, 2009
Coraline, the first stop-motion feature film to be presented in 3D, is being released in North American theaters on February 6. Neil Gaiman, author of the multiple award-winning novel upon which the film is based, stopped briefly in Montreal on his promotional tour for the film. I had the pleasure of sitting down and talking with him about the development of the project through its various stages.

Arin Murphy: Neil, congratulations on the imminent release of Coraline.

Neil Gaiman: Thank you. Yes, three days to go!

I was lucky enough to see it at the press screening last week.

Did you get it in 3D, or 2D?

I saw it in 3D.

Oh, good!

It really is quite the experience, isn’t it?

Yes, it’s not quite like anything else. And you know, it’s a lovely thing when you can actually say, “It’s not like anything else.”

Well, some of that is due to the story.

That’s true. But story aside, the way Henry uses 3D to delineate space is something nobody’s done before. You get that one needle gag five seconds into the movie, almost just so he lets you know that he could do this, if he wanted to. [It’s like saying] we can do this, and now we’re not going to. Now we’re going to use 3D in a way that isn’t about throwing things at the audience. This is the film you’re going to see, and we will simply make it good.

And he does a fabulous job with it.

It is awesome.

Were you thinking cinematically when you wrote Coraline?

No. I was thinking story when I wrote Coraline. When I finished I thought, “You know, somebody’s going to make this into a film, and I would like to see it… and if I had to pick anything, I would like it to be stop-motion.”

I had seen and loved Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, and had liked it enough that I had taken note of who directed it. Which meant that a few years later when James and the Giant Peach came out, I went to see that. And while I had problems with it, I loved it; the genius was there. I just thought there were some missteps. Like the going from live action to stop-motion; that seemed wrong. I wanted it to have been stop-motion all the way through. I wound up asking Henry about [it] many years later, and he said it was the budget; they could not afford to do it entirely stop-motion, and they played the hand they were dealt. So when I handed in the manuscript for Coraline I asked my agent, “Could you get this to Henry Selick?” And about a month later I found myself in an editing suite watching poor Henry as he struggled with the madness of Monkeybone, and very shortly after that he gave [Coraline] to [producer] Bill Mechanic, who bought it for Henry.

And Henry wrote a script, and sent it to me. And I said, “I think it’s too faithful.” And it was. It felt very, very laboriously faithful. You know, it kept turning into a silent little girl walking down corridors.

Which works in a novel –

Well, which works in a novel because you’re inside her head. You know what she’s thinking, you know what she’s feeling. But without benefit of voiceover or turning to the fourth wall and talking, you don’t have that.

So then Henry went away, rather sadly, and came back about a year later with a second draft script, which was essentially the script of the film you saw. But at this point it had to be live action, because Bill Mechanic had some sort of deal with Disney which precluded him from doing animation of any kind. And I believe that Michelle Pfeiffer was meant to be the Other Mother… And I’m sort of watching and thinking, “Well, that’s okay, I suppose, but I really wanted stop-motion.” And then 9/11 happened, and it became slowly apparent that Bill Mechanic’s funding was never going to [come through]. Eventually, the rights lapsed. And I wound up doing something you’re never meant to do, which is giving them – I think they got about nine months to a year of free option. Because I believed in Henry.

That’s such a wonderful statement of faith.

Well, it was a particularly wonderful statement of faith because the book had since come out, been published, been a huge success, and now had lots of large shark-like entities swimming around going, “We will give you real money, we will get a lot of money….” But I like Henry. And I trusted him. And I trusted somehow that things were going to work out. And then Henry wound up at Laika, and he showed the script at some point to [Laika Vice President of Animation and stop-motion animator] Travis Knight, who was a fan of mine anyway. And Travis loved the script.

Bill Mechanic did not like stop-motion. He thought it was antiquated and that nobody was interested, and that [the film] should be done in CGI. And he was pushing Henry incredibly hard to have him make it half CGI and half stop-motion, something like that, so that it would go out of antiquated puppetry animation into cool modern animation. Thank God Henry came up with 3D and said, “What if we did this instead?” There were enough bells and whistles in the 3D concept that they abandoned the CG idea, which made me so happy. And it made me happy because, look, if I’d wanted a CG movie when I finished writing I would have given it to my agent and said, “Could you get it on John Lasseter’s desk.” He’s the best at [CGI]. I didn’t. What I said was, “Can you get it to Henry Selick,” who is non-pareil in what he does. The only stop-motion person I like as much as I like Henry, but who works in a completely different direction, is Jan Švankmajer. And I guess it may say something about why I wanted this to be stop-motion that when my daughter Holly (for whom I originally wrote Coraline) was five years old, her favourite movie was Jan Švankmajer’s Alice.

Jump to part two of the interview.

Previously on fps:
Coraline (review)

Previously on The Critical Eye:
Neil Gaiman on anime and Miyazaki

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February 2, 2009

I tend to be very protective of the books I’ve read and loved, and I feel that most film adaptations don’t do their literary sources justice. Author Neil Gaiman’s repeated positive references to the progress of the stop-motion animation film adaptation of his Hugo-award winning short novel Coraline on his blog and in interviews have kept me hoping for the best, and I’ve enjoyed the vignettes and teasers Laika has released. Nothing in the promotional material gave me cause for concern: Henry Selick seemed to be treating it with respect. And that’s not a surprise, because when Gaiman completed Coraline he handed it to his agent and asked her to send a copy to Henry Selick before it had even been published. When the author trusts the filmmaker enough to do that, it eliminates the need for excessive amounts of anxiety on my part.

Director and scriptwriter Henry Selick has created a fantastic (in the true sense of the word) adaptation of the world in the multiple-award-winning book by Neil Gaiman. The screenplay is remarkably faithful to the book, with the exception of the addition of a new character. Wybie, a boy approximately Coraline’s age, was created by the filmmaker to serve as a foil for Coraline. In a book an omniscient narrator can share a character’s thoughts with the reader, but in a film that character sometimes needs interaction with others to evoke their feelings or thoughts. Wybie serves his purpose, and doesn’t detract from the story or from Coraline herself in any way. And whereas the book has Coraline very deliberately planning her final triumph over her Other Mother, the film has a more immediate and action-based conflict and resolution. If you’ve read the book, you’ll have expectations of the mouse circus: it’s delicious in film form, too. The pacing is excellent, the balance of dialogue to action is good, and each character is well-defined. All in all, the screenplay is a success.

My other concern about the film was its use of 3D technology. Too often this technology is used as a gimmick or a way to prop up what might otherwise be a less than successful sequence. This concern, too, was laid to rest in the enjoyably chilling opening sequence. Coraline is the first animated stop-motion feature to be filmed entirely in 3D, and successfully uses stereoscopy to create a seemingly more realistic stop-motion animation. There’s no gimmickry here, only a serious use of the technology to enhance the entire experience and to create the feeling of a stage with depth instead of a flat screen. There are a couple of things in the opening sequence that move out toward the audience, a nod to the experience the technology can give, but in general the technology is used to create the sense of depth and space. It makes the story more real instead of pointing out its meta-reality.

The animation is outstanding. The smoothness of the motion, the camera moves and angles are justifiably jaw-dropping. The production design is incredible. Apart from the unity of style throughout the design, the colour palette and texture are big players in the film. There’s a certain excitement knowing that the animated film you’re about to see has been actually constructed in tangible, physical form. The magic is real; it’s not an effect. Of course, the star of the film is also only twenty-two inches tall, but that doesn’t make it any easier to build her world realistically. Textures and fabrics need to be to scale, and everything needs to be as realistic as possible. For certain close-up shots of hands and such things, larger models need to be built to provide the proper sense of proportion and scale. The animating team also used rapid prototyping technology to create the multitude of facial expressions exhibited by the puppets. Working from scans and casts of original sculpts, the rapid prototype department built multiple replacement faces in CG modeling programs, which were then “printed” by three-dimensional object printers to create the puppet faces for the replacement animation technique, hand-finishing each face before applying it to the puppet.

The film features excellent voice acting from a strong cast. There’s no stunt casting here: every voice actor has been cast for a genuine talent and what they bring to the role. Dakota Fanning manages a wonderful balance between eleven-year-old bravado composed of aggression and fear, while Teri Hatcher’s Mother and Other Mother are a terrific contrast between mundane and just too good to be true. The delightful John Hodgman voices Father and Other Father.

Bruno Coulais' score fits right into the film without being memorable on its own, supporting the story without calling attention to itself. The children’s choral pieces successfully contribute to the unsettling feel of the film, particularly in the opening sequence. The score features lots of harp, which creates an idyllic feel for the Other House. Much of the music makes one think of a music box, a parallel image for the falseness of the world beyond the secret door. There’s a fun little They Might Be Giants ditty sung for Coraline by her Other Father, too.

While the film projects a strong message of self-reliance, overcoming fear, and being careful about what one wishes for, it also features creepy visuals and chilling concepts, and could well serve as nightmare fodder for younger children. (Heck, I know adults who are unsettled by the notion of buttons for eyes and who refuse to see the film.) Parents considering bringing a child to the PG film should view the available trailers and excerpts available at, and evaluate their child’s maturity level and story preferences carefully beforehand. (On his blog, Neil Gaiman addresses this problem by saying much the same thing: You know your child better than the filmmakers and the MPAA do.)

Stay till the end of the credits for a credit cookie, as well as a bonus “for those in the know.”

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November 20, 2008

Finally, we have a beautiful full length trailer for Henry Selick’s newest stop motion extravaganza, Coraline! If you, like I find YouTube's VQ and AQ questionable, hop on over to Yahoo and DL a super HQ copy for your HD.

Also, fps pal Ward Jenkins has posted about the Coraline site update over at
First of all, check out the mystery packages they sent out to various members of the press. You’ll notice from that post a password to enter once you’re on the film’s site. Enter it (buttoneyes) and you’ll be treated to a vignette on the various characters in the film. There’s more. I’ve been able to scrounge around other passwords (thank you, internets), if you’re curious:


Looks like Drawn didn't get a mystery box either. What's up, Focus Features? No love for the Canadians?

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August 12, 2008
We love our Lego around here, and when it's moving around, all the better. So we're happy to pass on this bit of news about the upcoming Nicktoons Network Animation Festival, which is happening this October in Los Angeles. Nickelodeon is specifically looking for stop-mo shorts using Lego bricks and minifigs, no more than two minutes long.

The contest is open to just about anyone who isn't living in a country on the U.S.'s "ain't no friend of mine" list, so Cuban animators will have to look elsewhere. Peep the rules and regulations, and find out how you can win $25,000 to create a new Lego short for Nick. Don't forget to read all the fine print so you don't have any surprises when it comes to rights. The final due date is September 15, so get to it, blockheads!

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July 30, 2008
Hero Complex, the LA Times geek blog, posted some pictures for those of us who can't make it to the San Diego Comic Con of a display of maquettes from Coraline, Henry Selick's 3D stop-motion feature, based on the young adult novel by Neil Gaiman.

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July 15, 2008

The Kraken returns! Louis Leterrier (The Incredible Hulk), famous franchise re-imaginer is setting his sites on Ray Harryhausen's amazing 80's mythological epic, Clash of the Titans. He spoke with ECranLarge about his intentions with the project and his intent to honour the work of the master of stop-motion animation film fantasy.

Video after the jump:


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May 30, 2008

We love stop-motion as much as the next person. No, wait, check that: we love stop-motion more than the next person, unless that person happens to be Marc Spess, who's been running the excellent Animate Clay website for years. Somewhere between Animate Clay and his Zombie Pirates shorts-in-progress, he's found time to launch the Stop Motion Magic Network, a social networking site for stopmo animators. Plasticine-plying prestidigitators, welcome home. Share the knowledge, share the frame-by-frame love.


May 15, 2008
Here's another reason why I love animation: anytime you think you've seen it all, someone goes and proves you wrong. Blu's Muto sits on the fringe of several techniques—stop-mo, painted animation, pixillation—while throwing out obsessive control mechanisms like, say, locking down the camera. And like the street art that it's built from, Muto incorporates elements of its surroundings, even acknowledging "interfering" passers-by in the audio. Have a look.

[Thanks, Penny Arcade.]

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May 14, 2008

The last time you were working on your computer and it crashed, did you do it? Smash it, I mean.

On Halloween night 2005, local artist Eric Bond celebrated in public his frustration with computer malfunction in an intensely hilarious performance piece called "Goreputer" (I was present). The performance was videotaped, but most of the footage was lost due to another type of malfunction… Human error. Bond, also an animator, did not want lose the evidence of what he did to a computer on that night. He filled in the lost footage with stop-motion. This is how in 2007, "Goreputer" the performance piece became Goreputer the animated short.

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May 10, 2008

If there were awards for truth in advertising, then Kino International would have to win something for the use of one adjective. The Exquisite Short Films of Kihachiro Kawamoto contains the bulk of the animation master's work, seven short films made between 1968 and 1979.

Kawamoto is considered a stop-motion animator, and his recent feature-length masterpiece, The Book of the Dead, features gorgeous sets to accompany his beautiful puppets. However, this DVD serves as a reminder that his shorts were rarely quite so straightforward. All of the films on the DVD involve the manipulation of physical objects—if not puppets, then cutouts—but Kawamoto freely mixes them with drawn animation and flat paper cutouts with varying degrees of abstraction.

In earlier films like 1972's The Demon, Kawamoto plays with this stylization by having characters move in sync with the background music's rhythm, almost as if they were performing the story as a dance. By the time of the final film, 1979's House of Flames, he's also using stark lighting and elegant compositions to suggest, at times, a stage play. The three middle films in the collection, An Anthropo-Cynical Farce, The Trip and A Poet's Life (from 1970, 1973 and 1974) all break from the use of puppets and the use of ancient Japan as a setting, but are no less compelling. They are perhaps a bit more obtuse in that unique way that independent animation from the 1970s could be.

Kino has also released the feature-length The Book of the Dead, which features some of Kawamoto's most exquisite—there's that word again—stop-motion work to date. Like his best-known short-form films, the movie features Buddhism in ancient Japan. However, this time Buddhist teachings are central to the film, as it takes place in the eighth century, around the time that Buddhism was being introduced to Japan from China. Unlike his shorts, Kawamoto has chosen here to fill out his sets with physical objects and far more characters, all realized with considerable detail. It's hard to watch a sequence with a room full of elegantly dressed puppets with their clothes blowing in the wind and not be awestruck by both the scene's verisimilitude and its poetry.

As lovely as these releases are, there are a few things I'd have liked to have seen. The Book of the Dead uses the English narration with no option to hear the original Japanese (though all the dialogue is still in Japanese, with optional subtitles) and neither disc includes any kind of extras. While Kawamoto's work speaks for itself, the level of craftsmanship on display on both DVDs leaves you wanting to see and hear more. Finally, completists are likely to wag their fingers: The Exquisite Short Films of Kihachiro Kawamoto lacks four shorts that were included on the Region 2 Kihachiro Kawamoto Work Collection DVD.

Where to Get It
Buy The Exquisite Short Films of Kihachiro Kawamoto from
Buy The Book of the Dead from
Buy Kihachiro Kawamoto Work Collection from

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March 2, 2008

Honestly, I don't know why anyone in Toronto would bother vegging in front of the tube during the March break when the National Film Board, by all appearances, has them covered. Animation fans with 17 minutes to kill can head over to the NFB Mediatheque and watch Madame Tutli-Putli for free at one of their digital viewing stations until March 31, but that's just for starters. The Mediatheque is continuing its tradition of unleashing hidden animation talent by providing inexpensive workshops and week-long day camps where kids create their own animated shorts. The daily workshops are for kids aged 6 to 13 and run from March 8 to 16; the day camp is for kids aged 8 to 13 and runs from March 10 to 14.

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February 24, 2008

Brad Bird accepted the Academy Award 25 minutes ago for Best Animated Feature Film for Ratatouille. In his acceptance speech, Bird thanked Pixar, Disney, John Lasseter, Steve Jobs, Ed Catmull, Brad Lewis, Jan Pinkava, and Dick Cook. Ratatouille edged out Surf's Up and Persepolis to win the Oscar.

Suzie Templeton and Hugh Welchman won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film for Peter and the Wolf, beating out I Met the Walrus, Madame Tutli-Putli, Même les Pigeons vont au Paradis and My Love.

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January 31, 2008
Last week Friday, the Children's Film Festival Seattle kicked off its 2008 edition and there is lots of animation in its program. It's still not too late to catch some wonderful events:

The opening film, The Adventures of Prince Achmed, will be showing again this Sunday with a new score commissioned by the Northwest Film Forum. This feature was created in 1926, 11 years before Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs by German animator Lotte Reiniger. Her silhouette animation is gorgeous and will easily captivate an audience in 2008.

All the remaining feature-length films are live-action, but preceded by animated shorts. The short programs include some animated shorts, and two are devoted specifically to it: Saturday's two Awesome Animation programs feature recent shorts from Sweden, including the very sweet Aston's Stones and a Will Vinton retrospective.

Will Vinton will actually be present at the festival, and he will also be conducting a workshop discussing his personal experience in both clay and 3D animation.

(Thanks to Plexipixel, also a festival sponsor.)

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December 23, 2007
Update: The original image that accompanied this post has been replaced at the request of Focus Features.

Ward Jenkins and Neil Gaiman have both put up pointers to a sneak peek of Coraline, directed by Henry Selick based on Gaiman's novel of the same name.

The final film is be the first stop-motion film shot stereoscopically, however this clip is in glorious 2D (otherwise it would just look silly on the Web).

I'm satisfied with this treat. I can wait to see the Other Mother and the Mouse Circus when the film comes out. I don't want to see too much before it's in the cinema. I want to see it as a whole - a solid story, excellent animation, great concepts, striking design - all at once.

Hi-res Quicktime

[Disclaimer: I am huge fan of both Henry Selick and Neil Gaiman. Huge.]

Previously on fps
Platform: Henry Selick Previews Work on Coraline

Previously on The Critical Eye
Neil Gaiman: The Sandman Scribe on Anime and Miyazaki

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December 16, 2007

Suffice it to say that we here at fps HQ love the "I'm a Mac, I'm a PC" ads, but more so when they're animated—as in this little stop-motion number, which is in the spirit of all the Rankin-Bass TV specials that are aired around this time of year. I would have liked to see a Mac Miser and PC Miser, but hey, you can't have everything.

The ad was directed and animated by none other than Drew Lightfoot, who—notwithstanding a brief encounter at this year's Ottawa International Animation Festival—we last saw doing some real-time animation to the amazement of the crowd at our Mike Johnson Animation Innovator presentation in 2005.

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December 7, 2007

At last year's Ottawa International Animation Festival, I met with I.Toon founder and president Yuichi Ito; at this year's festival, we—along with his manager Hiroko Kamata—sat down to talk about his series of short stop-motion films, Norabbits' Minutes. Created for Shochiku's 110th anniversary, Norabbits' Minutes features two young rabbit brothers who live together in the forest and have endearing adventures together... though not without some absurd twists. As a bonus, we are also presenting the first episode of Norabbits' Minutes in its entirety.

Ottawa International Animation Festival
Buy the Norabbits' Minutes series on DVD (Region 2)

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At last year's Ottawa International Animation Festival, I met with I.Toon founder and president Yuichi Ito; at this year's festival, we—along with his manager Hiroko Kamata—sat down to talk about his series of short stop-motion films, Norabbits' Minutes.

Listen to the interview and see the short

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October 31, 2007
In 1989, a Briton by the name of Neil Gaiman took the myth of the Sandman and spun it into an awe-inspiring series of comic books. In 1991, a Briton by the name of Paul Berry took the myth of the Sandman and spun it into an awe-inspiring and terrifying stop-motion short.

The mythical Sandman brings sleep and good dreams to children by sprinkling sand on their eyelids to weigh them down. But in 1817, German author E.T.A. Hoffmann wrote Der Sandmann, in which the Sandman's origins and purposes are far more sinister. Berry and producer Ian Mackinnon crafted their story around Hoffmann's vision, rooting the look of the ten-minute film in German Expressionism. Any symmetry to be found in The Sandman is accidental, and the shadows and moonlight serve to delineate the aquiline features of the title character and the haunted looks of the unnamed young boy and his mother.

Those three characters make up most of the cast of The Sandman; as the clock strikes eight, the boy is sent off to bed with only a lamp to guide him through the seemingly endless stairs of their Gothic house to his room. Every creak and every shadow is a new source of terror for the boy, who finally dives under his covers for sweet relief. But as he sleeps, the Sandman appears in his room, waiting for the right moment to strike.

The Sandman is entirely in pantomime, with barely-there incidental music accenting the creaks, groans, winds and other incidental sound effects that permeate the film with dread. The Sandman himself is a beautiful study in animated acting, as he gracefully stalks about the room, eventually leaping and dancing like a crazed bird of prey. His performance—for that matter, the entire film—is a textbook example of a medium perfectly suiting a story. At one point the Sandman is climbing the stairs and discovers a loose floorboard, prompting him to repeatedly lean into it, taunting the boy with its creaking. That scene, and the flashback it invokes in anyone who ever laid in bed and thought someone was coming to get them as a child, would never have worked without that sense of weight and tactility. Every moment of The Sandman takes advantage of stop-motion's grounding in reality, and uses it to present a fantastic and frightening scenario that everyone can relate to.

One note: if you're watching The Sandman for the first time, make sure to watch it through past the end credits for the one shot that will likely give you nightmares for the next week.

Where to find it: On the British Animation Classics Vol. 2 DVD.

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October 12, 2007
Le Festival du Nouveau Cinéma is known for its wolf that adorns its publicity materials. The fest has a track called Les P'tits Loups or, in English, Little Wolves, with programming geared towards children, and only two shorts in that entire track are live-action. The selections will definitely be of interest to parents and guardians, and honestly, I think if you left the kids at home you might not notice.

The track begins on the morning of Saturday, October 13 with U, a feature from France that appears to be a fairy tale on the outside and is a coming of age story underneath it all, despite the unicorn and the castle. It deals with concepts of love and adolescence in a very disarming fashion.

Sunday, October 14 features an hour's worth of Komaneko: The Curious Cat shorts. I can't recommend this highly enough. Our heroine is the ultimate do-it-yourselfer and amateur auteur. This little stop-mo cat creates her own stop-motion shorts, makes her own props, sets and puppets, and can be found outside filming her surroundings. One of her partners in crime is a little cat who builds robots and fixes mechanical objects.
Kids take away a great lesson, and the shorts, although suitable for children as young as 3, can entertain someone in their 50s just as easily. The shorts are well-crafted, include engaging characters and they have a simple, but coherent story. In Japan, it is distributed by Geneon Entertainment. It's too bad that they'll no longer be distributing DVDs in North America. I hope that someone else distributes them here. For now, you can get them at Yesasia.

For a more diverse selection, Sunday, October 21 features the various shorts, mostly animated, including the hilarious Isabelle au Bois Dormant/Sleeping Betty from Claude Cloutier at the NFB. If the festival's selection doesn't get local kids interested in film and animation, I'm not sure what will.

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October 10, 2007
Since Persepolis and Madame Tutli-Putli each screened at Cannes and won awards this year in May, they have appeared at animation and mainstream film festivals to acclaim. Montrealers can now finally see both films by attending the Festival du Nouveau Cinéma, which begins today.

Animation seems to have taken on a more important role in the festival with more shorts than ever. However, a few might slip through the cracks if you aren't careful. The visceral Face lies in wait in Competition 1, on Thursday, October 11 and Wednesday, October 17th. Madame Tutli-Putli is showing during Competition 2 this Friday, October 12 and Tuesday, October 16. Selina Cobley's Crow Moon screens in Competition 3 next week on the 17th and 18th.

The National Film Board of Canada Stereo Lab is screening four stereoscopic shorts, which 2004 OIAF attendees might have seen, but this screening includes the premiere of a stereoscopic version of Theodor Ushev's phenomenal Tower Bawher.

Previously on fps
Festival du Nouveau Cinéma coverage
Persepolis coverage
Two Podcasts for Madame Tutli-Putli

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October 8, 2007
For any new filmmaker, getting that first movie in the can is a monumental task. Add a demanding script and a predilection for toggling between animation and live action and you’re really talking about a challenging debut effort. With his recently premiered film Imagination, Eric Leiser has assembled a surprisingly ambitious project that complements his animation skills, but he’s generally let down by his actors, who are desiccant to the film’s sea of imagery.

Imagination steps into the surreal world of twin sisters Anna and Sarah Woodruff (Nikki and Jessi Haddad) who have confronted their disabilities by turning inward to their own imaginations and shared alternate reality. One girl has been rendered blind; the other has been diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, a form of autism characterized by difficulty interacting and socializing with others. The girls’ well intentioned but ill-equipped parents (Travis Poelle and Courtney Sanford) seek the aid of neuropsychologist Dr. Reineger (Edmund Gildersleeve) to chart a path to normalcy through the twins’ mental shroud.

The girls’ behavior becomes increasingly difficult for their parents to comprehend. Their food transcends the dinner plate to become living sculpture, and the girls play games in intricate, frenetic patterns that only minds in lockstep could achieve. Faced with the twins’ increasingly apparent and unexplainable abilities to defy accepted science and medical knowledge, Dr. Reineger is consumed with a profound professional crisis. He cannot effectively treat the girls, nor can he decode the bewildering world they have built for themselves within their minds.

The film’s real strength lies in its animation. Leiser’s whimsical but intricate method recalls Czech surrealism and charts a brave experimental path, though he’s not quite ready to stand on the podium with Jan Svankmajer. Nonetheless, Leiser’s multifaceted abilities are put to great use in Imagination’s engaging animated segments. His stop motion and puppetry work is spellbinding at times. Leiser also has some raw ability as a filmmaker beyond his wheelhouse of animation and sculpture, but Imagination’s live action portions are less appealing.

With the exception of a solid effort by Gildersleeve, the cast sleepwalks through its lines, nearly negating Leiser’s efforts to move Imagination’s narrative forward through force of artistic will. The effect makes an already challenging film even less forgiving of its audience. While acting is the primary offender, there are other weak points as well. Prominent plot devices (like the earthquake) come off as contrived, with camera work to match, but you have to admire the pluck Leiser shows in taking on thorny cinematic tricks with a $110,000 budget and limited experience. A lovely musical score by Leiser’s brother Jeffrey, who also co-wrote the script, helps mask the lapses and seals the duo’s status as a formidable creative pair. Imagination’s animation and ambitious script are enough to carry it through a successful run on the festival circuit, which will hopefully lead to more projects from this promising duo.

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July 4, 2007
Animation director Henry Selick gave a special presentation during the Platform International Animation Festival last week. After an extended reel including his (mostly stop-motion) work for MTV, the shorts Slow Bob and the Lower Dimensions from Liquid TV and the entirely CG Moongirl; and the features The Nightmare Before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach and Monkeybone, the audience was given a sneak peek into the evolution of the character design for the protagonist in his new directorial effort.

Coraline is based on the award-winning young adult novel of the same name by fantasy author Neil Gaiman. The original cover and illustrations were provided by Gaiman's frequent collaborator Dave McKean (their next collaboration for children is a picture book called Crazy Hair). McKean is known for his incorporation of photo collage in his artwork, but is also a deft illustrator. Although both writer and artist have worked with others, for many, you name one and the other name follows.

Unfortunately, no audio or video recording devices were allowed during the presentation, but I can tell you that I was delighted to see that:

1) The style does not look anything like McKean's. As huge a fan as I am of his work, it seems almost lazy to just go with his style because it's expected of anything associated with Gaiman's work. The medium is different and it's worth coming at the design from a different angle.

2) The new character design, similar to what you see above, really fits the character and the tone of the story. The audience was treated to a short animatic, and Coraline's look and movements make me very hopeful for this adaptation. The talented designers at Laika had me budgeting already for the book featuring conceptual art of the film.

Coraline is slated for theatrical release in late 2008.

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June 29, 2007
Our pals at the Fantasia film festival have unleashed this year's lineup, and as always, animation fans are well served—but they have to do a little more work to get their fix.

Features seem a little diminished, but not so much as last year. The fest starts and ends strong—Tekkon Kinkreet is the opening film, and the Korean Yobi the Five-Tailed Fox is the last animated screening, on the second-to-last day of the festival—but those are the only two features on 35mm film. The odd-looking stopmo film We Are the Strange is in high-definition video, but the other features (the Flash-animated Minushi, Naruto the Movie: Ninja Clash in the Land of Snow and Ghost in the Shell: Solid State Society) are all projected, standard-definition video. Previous Fantasia fests prove that watching projected video can still be enjoyable, but spending four days at the Waterloo Festival for Animated Cinema watching nothing but 35mm reminds you of the kind of difference the medium makes.

There are also two short feature documentaries that are about animation, and they're screening together. Animania is about Canadian anime fandom, which appears to focus on how the current generation of teen fans relate to anime. I've seen and heard so many reports on teen fandom I'd be inclined to give it a pass, but last year—back when the movie's focus was less on the teens—I was interviewed extensively for Animania, and I was asked some very interesting questions. I'm hoping they applied the same kind of thoughtfulness to their adolescent subjects. (And no, I'm not in the actual Animania movie, but apparently I'll appear in the DVD extras.) The other documentary is the French Ghibli et le mystère Miyazaki (Ghibli and the Mystery of Miyazaki), which needs little explaining but which is definitely a must-see, especially with interviewees like Isao Takahata, Moebius and Takashi Murakami.

Fantasia's real source of pleasure for animation fans comes from the animated shorts, but that's also its real source of pain. For years I've been preaching that animation shouldn't be ghettoized, that it should be treated like "regular" film. The problem is that Fantasia gives me just what I ask for, scattering its animated shorts among omnibus films (Ten Nights of Dreams) and over a dozen collections of shorts, only two of which are animation-specific (a best-of compilation from last year's Ottawa fest, plus the latest edition of The Outer Limits of Animation, which inexplicably includes the two-year-old, almost overexposed, not-terribly-out-there In the Rough). Miraculously, it's possible to see all of the animated shorts with only one schedule conflict: The one screening of The Outer Limits of Animation is at the same time as Watch Out! Beyond the Genres of Korean Short Films, which includes the 34-minute The Hell (Two Kinds of Life).

And really, that's the most amazing thing about Fantasia this year. They've added a third cinema to their venues, but in three weeks of screenings there appear to be fewer repeats than ever before. It's a testament to the passion of their crew that they're still going so strong.

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June 4, 2007
Madame Tutli-Putli is a remarkable work for many reasons, but the one that many (including me) have seized on is the one that continues the tradition of combining live-action and animation: the "gimmick" of compositing live actors' eyes onto the movies' stop-motion puppets. (The image to the left is Laurie Maher—Madame Tutli-Putli's co-creator, as it were—providing a reaction shot.) It is, perhaps, a form of motion capture that Robert Zemeckis and company never dreamed of.

That bit of trickery was achieved by Montreal-based painter/animator/compositor Jason Walker, who dropped me a line earlier today and pointed me to his website, which provides a glimpse into the process of capturing actors' ocular performances and then matching them up seamlessly. Still, after poking around I found I needed more, so I went straight to the source.

Emru Townsend: You're primarily a painter. What aspect of your painting skills do you bring to your compositing work?

Jason Walker: When I'm painting a portrait, one of the priorities, to me, is creating an exact likeness of the subject. Painting a human face requires a great deal of accuaracy. If any feature is even slightly off, you have a different person. The placement of eyes, especially, are key to making a person look human.

For Madame Tutli-Putli I placed, rotated, and scaled each eye individually, by the pixel, to make sure that Tutli's character was consistent through the four years of compositing. I used the same approach as painting a likeness. Tutli's eyes were also slightly stretched vertically to give her more of a sympathetic look.

ET: You're a little vague in your description of your process for matching human eyes to stop-motion actors. You used "every trick in the book and more," as you put it. Can you give us a detailed breakdown of one of those tricks?

JW: Vague, you say! Okay, you asked for it!

First of all, this technique of adding human eyes to stop-motion puppets is extremely complicated and starts long before the compositing stage. I will be adding more information on the technique to my website once Tutli has had time be in a festival or two before showing her "un-masked."

We decided that seeing Tutli with no eyes, and just the silicone puppet, is quite shocking and should be held back. The technique itself is a system I came up with back in 2003 when Tutli was still in talks with the NFB. I had worked on post-production effects for Clyde Henry Productions for several years before Tutli-Putli, and this was simply our latest collaboration and a chance to try a new challenge.

I would start by applying makeup to an actor. For Tutli's character this makeup would evolve throughout the film. With the "Pervert" character, and the small boy, I would add texture to the actor's skin to resemble the puppet they were to inhabit. I would then choreograph the actor's moves based on a chart that I would create. A "Wunderbar," as they became known. This was my way of breaking down the moves that the stop-motion puppet was making.

This timeline for each eye shot in the film would also indicate every time there would be a light flash or shadow pass on the puppet. With this puppet's actions indicated in colours, I could teach the actor to replicate the head moves. Once the moves were rehearsed, Chris and Maciek could then direct the actors for the context of the scene while I would call out the moves, and light flashes, shadows, etc.

The actors were incredible at learning their choreographed moves, and giving great acting performances. We had Laurie Maher (Tutli-Putli) cry for two long days of eye takes for the dining car scenes.

Depending on the complexity of the shot, we would film between 15-20 takes of eyes for each scene supplying a range of acting, and a varying degree of head angles. Chris and Maciek would then review the takes and make a final decision based only on acting, and then I would import the take, and try a quick test on the puppet footage to see if I could make the timing and moves work. Very few takes had to be discarded, so I got the angles I needed, and Chris and Maciek got the acting take they wanted.

Matching the eyes to the puppet footage presented many unique problems. When you film a person going through their moves, it never matches up... ever! The timing is way off, no matter how hard you try. So I decided not to even try matching the timing, just the head angles and lights. One trick was to re-time the footage in an extreme way. This is what gives Tutli her stop-motion style of realism. The eyes are in fact "re-animated" frames. If I had a puppet take that lasted 200 frames, and the chosen eye take lasted 3,000 frames, I would selectively take only the frames that I could use to re-build the acting performances whilst staying within the restrictions of the moves and light changes. Tutli might need to blink over 10 frames, so I could re-create a blink which retains the acting from the video blink that lasts 20+ frames. For example, you can make a blink sleepy or sudden with the same take if it's re-timed differently.

I tried at the beginning to rely on the computer for tracking but it wasn't nearly subtle enough. I decided that placing the eyes by hand for each frame was the only way to do it, and was actually faster. I would use alpha masks to remove all of the actor apart from their eyes, eyebrows, and partial under-eye, using varying feathered edges to match the facial structure of the puppet. This required a lot of painting experience. Many pieces were painted still patches, touched up in Photoshop, and positioned over problem joins or missing skin, fading in and out over time.

This was one hurdle, another was matching colour. Almost every frame of Tutli-Putli flickers because she is on a moving train. The only way to match eyes into this was to film as many of the big flashes at the time of the eye take, the rest have to be created with brightness and contrast tools, and colour balancing the darks, mediums and highlights to match every frame. Film grain was matched. Motion blurs [were matched], and making the eyes look like they were behind dirty glass in some shots.

Making Tutli's puppet hair fall back over her composited eyes was a handy little trick I used.

Filming the eyes would take about 3 hours per shot, compositing them seamlessly into a shot would take about 2 to 10 days.

ET: What software applications were in your compositing toolbox?

JW: I used Adobe After Effects for the compositing, and Photoshop to paint the facial patches. After Effects had its quirks, but it was quite solid over four years. From the start of the film in 2003 I went through 3 versions of After Effects.

ET: In the four years that Madame Tutli-Putli was in production, computer and video hardware got faster and more flexible while software became more powerful. As time went on, did this allow you to do more in less time, or did it open up more options?

JW: No, I got faster with practice, but the computer was always a bit slow. This project has been a 2D effect from the start so compositing shouldn't be too hard on the computer. However, as your readers will know, being able to flip through your last few frames in stop-motion is crucial to developing the flow of the move. Sometimes I would have to manipulate the eyes so much that the computer was never fast enough at frame advancing all the separate layers, masks, and colour effects attached to each eye. This was always a problem. This effect has to be in full resolution mode all the time to see if it matches. Very slow.

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May 29, 2007
Dear Sacha is a short film Montreal based animator Eric Bond made for a brother who's serving 20 years in a Florida jail. Sacha Bond is twenty-two years old and has bipolar disorder. In 2004, while intoxicated, he pulled out a gun in a Florida bar. Luckily no one got hurt. Sacha has been in jail since then, without the medication and help that he requires and with no chance for parole. His family is working hard to convince the Canadian government to transfer him to a federal institution in Quebec, his homeland.

The short illustrates the dreary, monotnous and depressing existence of a prisoner. The camera angles and puppet animation put us in direct connection with a lonely human; almost as if it's a real person sitting by himself across the room, being miserable. The filmmaker attempts to understand his brother, console him and imagine what he must be thinking and feeling.

A special on Sacha broadcast two weeks ago on CTV News explains his case and can be viewed here.

The site also features Eric Bond's short and a petition that demands the Canadian government to transfer Sacha to a federal institution here.

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May 27, 2007
Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud received the Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival for the adaptation of Satrapi's graphic novel, Persepolis. I can't wait to see this film. If you would like to see why I find this encouraging, pick up a copy of the original comic, or copies of Persepolis 2 or The Emboideries. If you can read French, Poulet aux Prunes is also a great read, which, like her other work, finds unexpected ways to make you laugh and break your heart. UPDATE: Poulet aux Prunes is now available in English under the title Chicken With Plums.

While the official Persepolis website hasn't been updated in a while, Satrapi's Myspace for the film has trailers up. Even if you don't know French, you'll figure most of it out. (Maybe not this one: At the end of the second teaser, the policemen are telling her to slow down and admonishing her for running in a manner the shows off her bottom. She yells back at them because they shouldn't be looking at her butt in the first place!)

Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski have received two awards at Cannes for the stop-motion short film, Madame Tutli-Putli. Both awards were in Best Short Film categories. The short received the Petit Rail d'Or and another award from Canal +, which means that their film will be broadcast on Canal + and the creators will receive the gift that keeps on giving: 6000 Euros' (over 8000 US dollars) worth of film equipment, courtesy of Panavision Alga Techno.

In addition to the Canal + broadcast, the short will be screened at Annecy, Toronto's Worldwide Shorts Festival and the Rome, Paris, Beirut and Mexico screenings for Cannes' International Critics Week tour.

Previously on fps:
Two Podcasts for Madame Tutli-Putli

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May 16, 2007
Last Friday I sat down to talk with Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski, who make up Clyde Henry Productions. They were getting ready to leave for France, where their ambitious stop-motion film Madame Tutli-Putli was selected for the International Critics' Week at the Cannes film festival. We spoke at length about cinematic influences, our previous encounter at the beginning of production, and why comparing them to the Brothers Quay is a bad idea; you can find the podcast here, if you don't already subscribe to the feed. (And why not? The link's in the sidebar to the right.) Also, check out our video podcast, where I present some excerpts from the 2001 animatic of the film. (See, if you subscribed you'd already know about that.)

If you're not currently in France, you won't have much of a chance to see Madame Tutli-Putli in full just as yet. I'd recommend that you head over to the official website and take a look.

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In the summer of 2001, I was part of a National Film Board peer review, where six of us spent a day looking at film proposals to provide recommendations. One of those films was Madame Tutli-Putli, and Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski presented us with an animatic—a rough animated presentation of what they intended for the film—as part of their proposal. A few elements have remained almost exactly the same over the course of six years, but many are strikingly different.

Photo credit: National Film Board of Canada

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May 15, 2007

Clyde Henry Productions is Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski, a team of multimedia artists who have been working together in animation and effects since 1997. But for about half that time, the pair locked themselves in a dark room to produce Madame Tutli-Putli, a seventeen-minute stop-motion short for the National Film Board of Canada. The title character, a demure and hesitating young woman, boards a train for an overnight journey in what appears to be 1920s Europe. But her journey is filled with strange passengers and even stranger events.

Madame Tutli-Putli is exquisitely produced, with meticulously crafted puppets and carefully worn sets and props. It's a wordless fever-dream of a story that nails you to your chair—even in its quietest moments, you get the feeling that something isn't quite right. Part of that unsettling feeling comes from what Chris Lavis calls the "gimmick" of digitally compositing human eyes onto the puppets, which produces a haunting effect that's difficult to ignore.

I spoke with the Clydes last Friday, just a few days before they were off to France. Madame Tutli-Putli was selected for the International Critics' Week at the Cannes film festival, and it's also slated to screen at the Annecy animation festival a few weeks after that. When we met at a local pub, they'd just finished several whirlwind days of publicity, and were recharging their batteries with a few pints before getting ready for their trip.

Clyde Henry Productions' next project is The White Circus, a feature in development at the National Film Board.

Clyde Henry Productions
Madame Tutli-Putli
Marcy Page spotlight (from the July 2005 issue of fps)

Photo credit: National Film Board of Canada

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April 14, 2007
I've let a small pile of items gather over the last few weeks, because I haven't had the time (or, with my recent cold, the stamina) to mention them. Here they are, in no particular order.

Last March we devoted the In Progress section of the magazine to Today, a short based on a poem by poet laureate Billy Collins and directed by Little Fluffy Clouds co-founders Jerry van de Beek and Betsy de Fries. It was announced recently that Today will join 19 other promotional films (Today was commissioned by the Sundance Channel) in competition at the Annecy festival in June. Congratulations, Jerry and Betsy!

The Norwich International Animation Festival changed its name to Aurora a few weeks ago. Can't argue with that, but their reasoning is questionable. "The change of the name is the annual festival's latest move towards a truly multidisciplinary program, and represents the opinion that 'animation' itself has become a restrictive tag, which rarely does justice to the myriad artistic activity that it encompasses," reads the press release. "It follows, then, that an 'animation festival' is no longer capable of staying abreast of this enormous artistic diversity—so in order to more freely reflect the way the programmers think animation is heading, we're dropping the label." Huh? The debate as to what is and isn't animation has been going on for a long time, and animation festivals—not to mention books, academic programs and even mainstream coverage—have evolved to suit. What's the big deal? Seems to me that if they really wanted to "[challenge] the traditional boundaries of animation," they'd present the nifty installations and live performances they're trumpeting under the old name, then defend their presence. It's not much of a challenge if you punk out and change your name.

If you've been hungering for new Ghibli material and you can't wait until the Sci-Fi Channel's North American rights to Earthsea lapse in 2009, you can always pick up the Japanese DVD of Tales of Earthsea (Gedo Senki) in June, which will come with English subtitles; or you can get the Iblard Time OAV, a collaboration between Ghibli and surrealist artist Naohisa Inoue, which is due for a July 4 release on both DVD and Blu-ray disc (both come with a soundtrack CD).

Next Saturday ASIFA-Hollywood will be hosting the one-day Stop-Motion Expo at Woodbury University in Burbank. Guests include Will Vinton, Screen Novelties' Mark Caballero and Seamus Walsh and Robot Chicken's Tennessee Reid Norton. $25 for the panel discussions, $35 for the seminars or $50 for the whole thing. ASIFA-Hollywood members get a $10-$15 discount.

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October 26, 2006

One year ago today, we held our second Animation Innovator event, in which we invited Corpse Bride animation co-director Mike Johnson to come to Montreal to speak about his craft and his work on the movie. In this podcast we revisit that event, as well as present some new material.

Film Clips
Mike Johnson on HypaSpace (2:05, 20.2 MB, MPEG-4)

Natasha Eloi
Matt Forsythe
Kevin Holden and Trudie Mason
Mark Osborne
Space: The Imagination Station

fps Links
Mike Johnson interview
Animation Innovator: Mike Johnson Photo Gallery
Corpse Bride review
Suggest an Animation Innovator Guest

Corpse Bride DVDs, CDs, books and more
The Devil Came Down to Georgia (as part of the Animals Should Not Try to Act Like People compilation)

Credits: Photo © Warner Bros. Entertainment; podcast opening and closing audio from The Corpse Bride soundtrack

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