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Animation for Art's Sake Is a Tough Cel

June 02, 1997|CHARLES SOLOMON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Sunday's Calendar examined how Hollywood heavyweights are challenging Disney's animation empire. Today's series conclusion sees how the Hollywood animation boom has stifled the independent movement, which may find its future on the Internet, and how schools prepare students for the digital arts.

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After languishing at the fringes of the film industry for decades, animation is booming, but its unprecedented commercial success has come at the expense of the independent artists and festivals that sustained the medium during its dark days.

Working on minuscule budgets in the United States or in government-sponsored studios in Eastern Europe and Canada, individual artists pushed the boundaries of animation, exploring new media, visual styles and content during the '70s and early '80s, when commercial production usually meant mindless kidvid and toy commercials thinly disguised as features.

Although their films were seen only by festival audiences and in touring compilations, these innovative artists won Oscars and provided mainstream filmmakers with new ideas. Long before computer-generated imagery became a Hollywood staple, artists at academic institutions and the National Film Board of Canada were experimenting with computer animation.

But the independent animated short has been co-opted by Hollywood. The competition among the major studios for talented, experienced artists has produced a rise in salaries and intense recruiting. Artists around the world who once pursued independent visions are working on big-budget features and TV shows. Why starve on a waiter's salary or a government grant when you can earn a six-figure salary? And many artists who do make personal films seem more interested in creating a new "Ren & Stimpy" that a producer will buy for a pile of money than in exploring a style or technique.

Avant-garde animators see hope for their medium, however, on the Internet, where short, simply made cartoons can overcome sluggish modem speeds to find global distribution.

The demise of the government-funded studios in the former Eastern Bloc (more than a dozen studios existed in the USSR alone) eliminated another source of serious work that balanced the more mainstream shorts. Many of the Eastern European animators are now working on American features and programs, either in Los Angeles or in satellite studios around the world.

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The major animation festivals at Annecy, France; Ottawa, and Hiroshima, Japan, used to have the atmosphere of a summer camp, where a relatively small group of artists met to view each others' work and to exchange ideas and gossip. Over the last decade, the focus of the festivals has shifted from screenings and socializing to buying and selling.

"I'm not even sure that the best independent films get into the festival circuit, because the members of the selection committees--who are usually good people--are afraid to pick films that are too unusual or out of the mainstream," said independent animator Faith Hubley. "The problem is that the large festivals, with the exception of Hiroshima, are totally geared to the marketplace. I find the whole scene so bizarre that I feel like Alice in Wonderland--I can't take it seriously. In the old days, people came to the festivals not to wear their clothes, not to be seen, not make money, not to make deals, but for the sheer joy of seeing challenging films and talking about them."

Hubley and her late husband, John, won three Oscars and scores of festival prizes for their innovative films exploring subjects as diverse as childhood games, the folly of war and the threat of nuclear destruction. They were part of the group of international artists who worked during the early '60s to establish a festival in the lovely resort of Annecy in eastern France as animation's equivalent of Cannes. (This year's event concluded Saturday.) Her disappointment is echoed by Frederic Back, who won Oscars and the grand prizes at Annecy and Hiroshima for his ecologically themed films "Crac!" and "The Man Who Planted Trees."

"Commercial production has overcome the basic purpose of the festivals, which should be a kind of revelation, a presentation of what people can do by themselves, and not big productions," he said in a telephone interview from his home in Montreal. "It may be the level of films has also declined; the majority of films seem to be of very mediocre quality. I think the problem is that Disney and other great companies have enough money to take all the talent away from short films and inventions. They risk annihilating those talents by making them work only in a very small area of the art."

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