OIAF, Still Drawing In the Animation World After 40 Years

All photos by Andre Gagne.

What do a recently unemployed Martian, a man who’d rather be a dog, a young Paris loving poet, an enlightened pig, a kidnapped imaginary friend and a jilted moustache all have in common? They are either the meandering mental musings of a single man with different pigmented eyes wearing a bowler hat concealing a single dyed purple hair sitting in a downtown coffee shop wondering why he can’t order tequila there at 7 a.m or they’re all characters you’ll meet at the Ottawa International Animation Festival (OIAF).

At 40-years-old, rather than going out and purchasing a sports car or reaching for a tube hair dye –purple or otherwise–, the OIAF has become introspective while still remaining rooted in animation present. Along with the usual offering of current animated features and shorts, this year’s programming also includes some screenings honoring festival award winners of old as well as an exhibit showcasing the many years of poster art.

The opening ceremonies and many OIAF will be held at the ByTowne Cinema.

A handful of people who were part of the first year of the festival were in attendance at last night’s opening ceremonies inside the ByTowne Cinema. The crowd, made up of industry professionals, students, enthusiasts young and young at heart and those who just love a good cartoon, filled the seats in just one of what the festival can expect to be many packed screenings. It’s expected that over 28,000 will attend the festival this year in some capacity, a stat not unappreciated by the organizers. As Canadian Film Institute Executive Director Tom McSorley said in his opening speech, 40 years ago a Trudeau was in office and now, 40 years later, there’s another. In between there were joys and pratfalls for the festival but, through them all, it endured because of the audience.

OIAF Artistic Director Chris Robinson was only nine back in 1976. He grew up in a time when cartoons were a Saturday morning ritual or something you rushed home to after school. By the time he joined the festival in the mid-90’s –admittedly not knowing much about animation beyond Bugs Bunny and Disney–, the industry had just exploded. Every year he’s been asked the same question: why Ottawa?

“People don’t realize that Ottawa has a long animation history going back to the 1940’s when the National Film Board of Canada started up on Sussex and John. Norman McLaren’s classic Neighbours was shot over in Rockcliffe,” he tells Ottawa Life, adding that the 80’s were a boom for local animators and cites Algonquin College’s animation program as one that has produced a lot of industry players over the years.

Robinson looks back to the decade he was born into as the one that sparked the upward climb to animation becoming more recognized as an art form and not simply just cartoons.

“Sesame Street used a lot of independent animation to teach kids how to count and spell. That led to MTV. Some of the folks who started at MTV had connections to Sesame Street and they realized if animation can teach kids to count, then maybe it can teach them to buy stuff and to see what’s cool. Those same little kids who watched Sesame Street were now probably high school kids. I think the success of The Simpsons opened it all up. It’s mass popularity was propelled by that same generation.”

Some of the characters from LAIKA Studios brought out to show youngsters at the Animation Celebration.

A new generation was invited to the first events of the 2016 festival as busloads of wide-eyed children, possible future animators, rushed into the National Gallery like a stampede of wildebeests for an Animation Celebration. Kids from various city schools were able to take a tour of the gallery as well as sit in on a talk with LAIKA Studios (Coraline, ParaNorman, Kubo and the Two Strings) rep Mark Shapiro on the stop-motion animation process.

Angline Yan of Hilson Avenue Public School loves animation.

“I think animation is really cool because it’s animated and not real but you can see it like it’s an actual real thing happening in front of your eyes,” said an elated 10-year-old Angline Yan of Hilson Avenue Public School. “It’s  cool how they can take a bunch of little pictures and put them together really fast to make it look like something is moving.”

Shapiro, tells kids that they just need to start drawing, put pen to paper and observe the world around them to begin the path to becoming a great animator. Taking cues from the real world, learning by not just doing but watching, will give budding artists a sense of how animation should move. While teaching techniques, he has also discovered a lot from the youngsters he’s chatted with about the medium.

“I learn we’re all kind of on the same page. We may be at different levels of our lives but we all have that love of animation, of story –which is really key– and it’s invigorating because you just get this feel of the energy, why they love watching movies,’ says Shapiro, looking forward to a special free outdoor screening of Coraline Friday night. “Kids just get it because we’re all kind of interconnected in this love of animation.”

Animation fan Sean Dooley shows off some of his ink outside of the ByTowne.

Robinson adds that the Career Fair, which takes place Saturday, September 24 at Saint Brigid’s Centre for the Arts, is also an important aspect of the festival for those thinking of breaking into the industry. There animators can connect with various studios and learn lots of tricks of the trade. Some, like Matt Cummings, come from great distances just for the networking possibilities the festival provides.

“I came this far hopefully to get hired so I can afford my way back home,” a half-joking Cummings, President of the St. Clair Animation Club in Windsor, says one 10-hour train ride later. “They’re hiring based on what they see in your demo reel so you need to be improving your skill and style.”

Robinson reminds those coming to the festival with a career in mind to be true to themselves and don’t sell their vision short. All advice can be taken with some grains of salt but it’s important to not oversell yourself as well.

“If you look at the people behind The Simpsons, Family Guy, Beavis and Butthead, Spongebob, Ren and Stimpy, and South Park, they succeeded because they were doing something they wanted to do. They made uncompromising work and that made the industry come to them. The industry needs leaders not followers,” he says.

Those potential future animation leaders could see themselves in the festival’s next forty years joining the ranks of Nick Park, Igor Kovalyov and Joanna Quinn, all past Grand Prize winners. This year the festival narrowed down 2,311 entries from 86 countries to a selection of 80 short films and 7 features for competition.

Features include Ann Marie Fleming’s Window Horses featuring Ottawa’s own Sandra Oh, the offbeat Nerdland and the 3D remake of the Canadian classic La Guerre des Tuques. As for the shorts, well, they could take up an entire article themselves so best check out the guide for the screenings you’re interested in. Other festival highlights include the popular Animators Picnic, various talks and, new this year, NightOwl, three floors of music, gaming, cosplay and, of course, animation!

animation-7-of-9“Animation gives you this childlike feeling,” says cartoon lover Alison Horn in line opening night for her first ever festival screening. “When you live in a world of such sadness you finally get some brightness to your day with animated films.”

With so much to choose from, navigating the festival options can seem daunting. Robinson has a few suggestions to help.

“See the short competition screenings. There you have five programs of some of the best animation being made today. You see 10 to 12 films in each screening so it’s an animation buffet,” he says adding that the 40th anniversary historical retrospectives of every Grand Prize winning film would also be a nice sampler of classics, forgotten gems and controversial picks.

A personal favorite for Robinson is another look at the festival’s past. Patrons can sit in on a special talk with acclaimed animator Caroline Leaf (The Street, Two Sisters), the first Grand Prize winner of the festival.

“She doesn’t attend many animation events anymore so we’re pretty thrilled that she agreed to come,” says Robinson. “I just couldn’t imagine celebrating our anniversary without our inaugural winner her.”


The Ottawa International Animation Festival continues today and runs until September 25. Tickets and passes can be purchased online.