Initially daily but now sporadic blog about anime and world animation with a specific focus on the artists behind the work. Written by Ben Ettinger.
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Wednesday, January 31, 2007

11:59:17 pm , 1140 words, 3530 views     Categories: Animation, Misc, Indie, TV

BOO 2006

Just came from witnessing this year's Best of Ottawa (2006), and for my money it was the best of the Best of Ottawas I've seen. Chris Robinson even dropped by for a bit beforehand, and he agrees. Goes to reason (that it was the best), because this year the selection wasn't merely a rote regurgitaton of the award-winners, but the best of signed Chris. I've been kind of out of it in terms of animation lately (it comes and goes in cycles), but this was a nice revitalizing shot in the arm and kick in the head that made me fall in love with all that moving drawing stuff all over again. I've been diplomatic about liking everything in the past, but here there's no need for diplomacy, as everything hit that nirvana spot in the back of my brain just at the right angle. Absolutely top-notch selection in other words showcasing everything that's great about animation, and it's interesting since half of them didn't win any awards.

By far, far my favorite (to my own surprise) was the only Japanese entry, Lightning Doodle Project (Pikapika), which was made entirely by people waving flashlights around in front of a camera. (reminded me of Beep It) It was one of those rare moments of cinematic wonder when you see something that makes your eyes and mouth shoot open, and you just gasp like a little child in sheer, simple, beautiful wonder. Packed with the type of goodness I most value: much in little. Taking a simple concept and making a perfect, tight little film like this with its own unique visual approach, inventing its own idea of what constitutes a valid visual creation. At the same time it's a wonderful treat for the eyes, with a warm pulsing glowing mood and fantastic, freeflowing shapes that I could see myself coming back to immerse my eyes in again and again. All of it created by ghostly figures shot in the twilight under underpasses at evening digs and other exotic locales of the urban preserve. Nirvana in a light stick.

Crossing the Stream and The Carnival of the Animals were next up on the fave list, though it's hard to rank when everything is so damned impressive. Neither of the latter won awards, but I award them my own personal award of Best Shorts To Watch To Fall In Love With Animation. I could hear one cinemagoer whisper "didn't like that" after Crossing the Stream (Skip Battaglia), but tsk, tsk, it was a ravishing, perfectly delectable stream of consciousness cascading of lines following a cowboy (?) crossing a stream with his horse and pony, an ode to the beauty of line that reminded me again what it was I loved about animation... that primal thrill of watching lines move. To a lover of dancing lines such as myself, it was a wonderful experience, and I send out a tender-hearted bravo and wahoo of joy. A poem written in lines of water. The erotic element was at high noon in The Carnival of the Animals, which was fantastic in more ways than I can count, multi-layered in ways only animation can be, with crazy designs and colors, great ironic matching to a classic soundtrack (music tinging animation and animation giving a new tinge to the music too), a fun yet deep romp in cartoon sexiness that was the most satisfying non-abstract (tho not-quite-narrative) piece to me.

The closing film Who I Am and What I Want was a great surprise closing, starting all primitive and scribbly but gradually drawing you into its calmly insane meandering narration of crazy but invigorating and liberating yearning to be this and that. The final spurt of wanting achieves a truly enthralling rhythm that you don't want to come to an end. Who was that? What did it mean? I could sense myself sailing along on a perfect and comfortable razor's edge of comprehension-incomprehension that I rarely attain but now wish I did more, as it feels great. The name of one of the co-directors (Chris Shepherd) rings a bell, but I can't remember from where.

It wasn't surprising to see Andreas Hykade there with his latest short, and I'm glad it was included, because Hykade is a master storyteller in the medium of animation like few I've ever seen. Taking a story that in its outline sounds like a Disney live-action heartwarmer of a boy and his rabbit and turning it into something as hair-raising, resonant, elemental, almost mythical as he has here, without dipping into schlock or schmaltz, seeming to speak to so many things without coming across as a facile Allegory with a capital A, now that can't be an easy task. The film fairly seethes with invisible controlled tension, the lines sparing but masterful, pared down so that every object is merely a symbol for its referent. One of the very rare instances that makes me want to praise animation as a storytelling medium.

Every other piece was worth the price of admission, from the hilarious tour-de-force in pencil by Joanna Quinn, to the lo-fi but brilliant guy101 narrating the story of an online encounter and encounter-within-an-encounter in the language of chat boards and DOS prompts. It's a film that didn't win an award but that works fantastically as a film, and that is what unifies these. Not that they are award-worthy, but that they are all solid works, films, with depth of meaning and solid directing, no matter the technique. The famous Rabbit was there, and seeing it again made me think the reason it's a great film is because it's doesn't feel like it was made to win an award, but rather invents its own unique narrative flow with its own inner logic based on the premise and source material, and that's the sign of a great animated film.

Totally unrelated, I remember noticing that one of my recent favorite discoveries, Hiroshi Okubo, had worked alongside fellow Studio Torapezoid member Ono Manabu since the beginning of both of their careers, but not knowing the circumstance behind their association. I just discovered the reason for this upon seeing both credited under the moniker of "Studio Roman" in the Tylor OVAs from about a decade ago. It seems they both started out working together at this studio. It was particularly interesting to note Ko Yoshinari credited alongside them (in 4 & 8). For a studio I'd never heard of, that's an impressive array of talent to have sent out into the world. Focus tends to be given to the big production studios, but there's a whole galaxy of small subcontracting studios like this that narrate a kind of alternate history of the development of anime. Oh Pro is merely one of the bigger and more successful examples. Studio Roman was involved in 3-10, of which Okubo was involved in 4, 5, 8, 9, 10.



Random person
Random person [Visitor]

I’m so sorry I’m going to completely skip past your detailed and fascinating coverage of BOO in this comment (though do know it was definitely appreciated), but…

Just out of interest, would you happen to know of any *current* small production houses employing one or two good animators right now? Or of any recent decent animators who came from subcontractor companies? The only one that floats to my mind is perhaps Jun Nakai who was apparently from Studio Wanpac or Wombat or something. I also heard that Anime R and Toru Yoshida used to be pretty good back in the day, there were some clips of their work on Youtube but they’re not there any more.

I’m just wondering if what you were describing about times back then still continues up till today. I wonder whether the general system is more accomodative of freelance/shifting animators now than it used to be.

02/03/07 @ 12:08
Ben [Member]  

That’s a very good set of questions. I’ve been wanting to talk more about this subject. From what I’m able to tell, I think this definitely continues to this day. I don’t know whether there are more small subcontracting studios than before or less, but I still do regularly hear of interesting new animators emerging at small subcontracting studios, so at the very least it hasn’t disappeared. Other than Studio Torapezoid and Studio Hercules, though, I honestly haven’t taken the time to investigate any of them in depth because none of the work I’ve seen so far grabbed my attention enough to merit doing so. Only Hercules and Torapezoid impressed me enough in that sense. (But I guess the point is moot because Hercules and Torapezoid are a different sort of entity. They’re not actual studios but rather artist gatherings.)

One of the small subcontractor studio animators I’ve heard good things about is Seiya Numata of Studio Hibari. Hibari has been around since 1979 when it was founded by an ex-Toei animator, and they’re technically not a pure subcontractor anymore, as they produce projects now too, but they were subcontractors for a long time and at different times had a number of interesting animators like Kinichiro Suzuki or more recently Takamitsu Kondo. Studio Cockpit has also been around for a couple of decades, and I believe a bevy of famous animators have passed through the studio over the years (I think Itano had a stint there in his early years), but there are still interesting people coming out of there - first and foremost among them Yoshihiko Umakoshi. The chief AD of Air Gear, Masahiko Sato, was apparently Umakoshi’s ‘disciple’ at Cockpit. And though I’m not familiar with his work, apparently a person at Cockpit named Tatsufumi Tamakawa is doing interesting work. I believe they remain a pure subcontractor.

Yes, I’ve also heard of Studios Wanpaku and Wombat in passing, but likewise don’t know much about them. Anime R is definitely one of the more famous subcontracting studios of the last three decades or so, primarily I think because they were among the first studios to really establish a name for themselves outside of Tokyo, where most anime companies are located. They’re in Osaka. I think Hiroyuki Okiura and Kazuchika Kise started out there, and as you said Toru Yoshida for a long time was one of their star animators. I’ve heard Taiki Harada is one of the younger up-and-coming animators at the studio now. I believe they were mostly involved in subcontracting for Sunrise. And then I’ve also heard little snippets in passing about other small subcontracting studio and animators, like Tsutomu Taiki of Studio Emu. I think there are tons of subcontracting studios in Japan that we never really hear about, so I suppose it would be more of a surprise if there weren’t interesting animators coming out of these studios occasionally. There seems to be a constant trickle of interesting faces appearing through these studios, and it’s probably just that we don’t hear about them until they’ve been working for a few years and developed their skills enough to make a name for themselves, often by which time they’ve left the studio in question and gone freelance.

I can’t really say anything for sure about whether the system nowadays is more accomodating of freelance animators, but my vague impression is that nowadays the typical route for a good animator is to go freelance once he attains a certain level after having started off at a studio, rather than stay studio-tied, as people did before. If you’re good, you’re obviously going to get work. I think there’s also simply enough work going around generally that it’s possible to make a living more easily freelance now. (If you can call it a living. I’ve heard pretty horrific things about the poverty-level income of animators in Japan. Amazes me anyone would want to become an animator at all.) That’s an issue that interests me: How has it changed the work people do now that so many of the good animators are atomized as freelancers, rather than working with other people at a studio? I wonder if the freedom of freelancing has contributed to certain freelance animators developing more extremely idosyncratic styles than ever before.

02/03/07 @ 18:20
Random person
Random person [Visitor]

…Wow! Yikes, that was long. Thank you so very much for putting in the effort for such a long and insightful comment. It could have gone on its own post, almost!

Thanks for the information on some of the animators. I don’t know enough about small subcontracting studios so I had no idea about Umakoshi etc. (although I’ve heard likewise about Numata).
You are right that by the time these animators are skilled/famous enough to attract attention, they’ve usually left their old studio. .. I guess good animators tend to value the ability to choose their projects (to an extent) as a freelancer, over job security and such as studio employees. Perhaps it fits with the trend (?) in Japan of young people valuing such stability less than the older generations… Although the pathetic pay of animation is probably crossing over the line for talented people unless they have a burning ambition to do commercial animation…

I wouldn’t be surprised if freelancing is what removes artistic fetters from the animators because they’ve got less of an expectation or whatever to meet up to; and I figure they don’t necessarily meet with the animation director, etc. who may otherwise yell at them for not drawing “properly” and demand a retake. I wonder if it’s got to do with studio politics too, you probably get less people talking behind your back about your idiosyncracy… I imagine Utsunomiya would certainly have been unable to do what he did with the Eureka 7 OP if he were a Bones employee.

I guess it would be much better for freelance animators to make up for their lack of interaction and such by banding together under ad-hoc gatherings like Hercules and Trapezoid. I notice that even without names like that you sometimes see the same animators stick around together, like Masashi Ishihama and friends.

02/03/07 @ 22:02
Tim [Visitor]

Wow even reading the comments on this blog gives out great information.

That Rabbit film you mentioned was “Run Wakes, Rabbit"? I find it interesting that you liked that film. I can’t get used to that 2d boned (moho) style animation. But you were sold on the content I guess.

Another great post! Oh and thanks for those indepth posts on Kemonozume. It made the series even more enjoyable. I ment to write long praise comments on each one but was too busy at the time. :)

02/05/07 @ 07:02
Ben [Member]  

My pleasure. I hear the attrition rate for new animators is pretty high in Japan, probably due to the high work load / low pay. You’ve got to be pretty damn in love with the work to get past that. You’re right that even without studio ties you can see patterns of association emerging if you look close enough, which I guess is proven by the whole Hiroshi Okubo-Manabu Ono thing. For example it’s obvious that Matsumoto probably came into Chevalier because of his long association with Kazuhiro Furuhashi, since he hasn’t done that much IG stuff. It’s also interesting to note the surprising places a lot of today’s famous animators first started out at. I would never have imagined Shinya Ohira started out at Studio Pierrot, or that Norio Matsumoto started out at Studio Deen, or that Toshiyuki Inoue started out at Studio Junio, etc. By the time they became famous those studios were a thing of the past for them. It was also interesting to find out why I’d never heard of Nishimi Shojiro until he suddenly popped up a few years ago - because he started out at Telecom and had for years been doing work in overseas productions hidden from view.

Tim: Thanks very much! Reminds me I should probably write about the last episode sometime…

02/05/07 @ 16:30