OIAF 2018: A Chat with Artistic Director Chris Robinson

From the international competition to this year’s Collideoscope program spotlighting collage animation, the 2018 Ottawa International Animation Festival is packed with screenings, talks, master classes, parties and more.

Running September 26-30, the 2018 edition of the Ottawa International Animation Festival — North America’s largest independent animation festival — is nearly upon us.

In addition to this year’s international competition — which includes 22 narrative and 15 non-narrative short films, 13 student projects, 18 commissioned films, and seven animated features — OIAF 2018 offers a wide array of screenings, retrospectives, talks, parties and exhibits, as well as seminars, keynote addresses and pitch sessions presented by The Animation Conference, the Ottawa Festival’s three-day industry-driven event running September 26-28.

Ahead of OIAF 2018, AWN had a chance to catch up with the festival’s Artistic Director, Chris Robinson, to discuss this year’s program. A well-known figure in the world of independent animation (and here at Animation World Network), Robinson has worked with the Ottawa Festival in one capacity or another since 1991. He was named Executive Director in 1995, and later, in 2000, changed his title to Artistic Director in order to focus solely on the creative side of OIAF’s operations.

Robinson’s knowledge of independent animation verges on the encyclopedic, much of it obtained first-hand, as is backed by his several books on the subject, including “Unsung Heroes of Animation“ (2006), “Estonian Animation: Between Genius and Utter Illiteracy“ (2007), “The Animation Pimp“ (2007), “Animators Unearthed“ (2010), and “Japanese Animation: Time out of Mind” (2010), among others. (He is currently working with German animator and artist Andreas Hykade on a magical realist graphic novel about his experiences with testicular cancer and its aftermath called “My Balls are Killing Me.”)

As the recipient of nearly 2,500 short films submissions this year alone, Robinson is in a unique position from which to view the international independent animation scene. He brings to the job an equally distinctive artistic sensibility informed not only by his 27+ years of experience, but also an uncompromising drive to avoid bowing to fashion or fads.

He can be taciturn and garrulous by turns, eschewing polite patter but pouncing meatily upon a topic when it appeals to him. While his remarks are frequently off-the-cuff, they also demonstrate a depth of consideration and thought. Chris is a thinker. He ruminates.

AWN queried Robinson about the view from his perch, pestering him with all the usual questions about what attendees can expect at OIAF 2018, along with a few others about the international animation community at large. Read the Q&A, which has been edited for length and clarity, below:

AWN: Hello, Chris! Tell us about some of this year’s special guests.

CR: There’s a slew of people coming this year with stuff that I’m excited about. One of the biggest things is the people involved with the Collideoscope program [Burst Like Stars: The Golden Hits of Collage; Recycled and Reimagined: Expanded Collage], which is a big program focused on collage animation that I’ve been working on. Not cut up animation, but collage animation. It’s, like, five screenings, two talks, an exhibition, and a kids workshop. The centerpiece of the program is Lewis Klahr, from the U.S., who’s going to be here for two screenings [Ghosts of a Different Dream: The Films of Lewis Klahr; Lewis Klahr: Sixty-Six], a one-on-one chat [The Act of Re-Animation: One-On-One with Lewis Klahr], and an exhibition of his work [Hieroglyphic Cutouts: Collages Of Lewis Klahr 1995-2018].

There’s also a program by Stacey Steers looking at process [Stacey Steers: Process]. She’s also from the U.S., and she’s put together a program that’s looking at the current state of collage, where it’s going, how they incorporate the doodle tools, stuff like that. It’s kind of a sweeping thing right from the beginning: Stan Vanderbeek, Lawrence Jordan, Harry [Everett] Smith, going through to contemporary artists like Lei Lei.

I don’t think collage gets a lot of credit in animation, or it gets stuck in with cut-out animation like Lotte Reiniger, but I see it as something different. Like Lewis Klahr, he’s kind of steered away from the animation community. He’s never labeled himself, so he hasn’t really been known in our little community, so I’m kind of excited to bring him in and introduce him to a lot of people and whatnot.

AWN: How long has it taken you to assemble the Collideoscope program?

CR: Well, I’ve had the idea for a few years and I just finally got off my ass this year and did it. Originally it was going to be a collaboration with the Holland Festival [HAFF] but after the departure of Gerben Schermer, it became just an Ottawa thing. I’ve spent the last year working on it, but it’s been in the works for a while. Really, the fascination for me was that this is a technique we learn as kids. This cut-and-paste from magazines and gluing things together. There’s something really lo-fi about it and I wanted to do something.

Every year, it’s like, “oh let’s talk about some new wanky technology.” And that’s what the media asks every year too: “What’s new? What’s the new thing?” We’re always going forward without stopping a minute to just be in the moment, or even explore the past a bit more. So this is a bit of an exploration of that past.

So that’s what I’m excited about. We also have retrospectives with Bent Image Lab, out of Portland, and Steven Subotnick, which is long overdue. We’ve wanted to do a focus on Bent Image Lab  out of Portland for years, because they’re a studio I’ve always admired who kind of straddle that line between art and industry and do it quite well. So they’re going to be here doing a master class [Bent Image Lab Masterclass with Chel White and Rob Shaw] and a retrospective screening [Bent Image Lab: A Perfect Storm]. And Steven Subotnick — who’s well known to Ottawa festival attendees — he’ll be here as a jury member as well and is doing a master class [The Inner Limits: Steve Subotnick] and a retrospective of his work [Odds and Sods: Steven Subotnick Retrospective].

AWN: You mentioned Gerben Schermer and the Holland Animation Film Festival. The Ottawa Festival named him Honorary President this year, yes? Tell us more about that.

CR: It something we do whenever we feel like it. It’s not an annual thing, and it’s usually given to a person we’re just celebrating, acknowledging someone who has really influenced not just animation but specifically the Ottawa Festival, and who has some input in our direction. The whole controversy last year, with Gerben being pushed out of the Holland Festival, was the perfect time to acknowledge the influence he’s had. He’s had a lot of influence on my program and in Ottawa and in a lot of the newer festivals as well.

So he’s going to be here. He’s doing a program. Each year we ask the honorary president to put together a program, kind of like a heartstrings thing, it’s just like pick an hour of your favorite films, but it’s a little bit more than that. This year we’re calling it “11 Reasons to Love Animation.” So we ask the honorary president to present a showcase to the general public, who doesn’t know anything. Pick some films that you think are really cool that you think they should see that would help them get a different take on animation. Yeah, so he’ll be doing that, and doing the official ribbon-cutting ceremonies. Although we don’t have any ribbon, so he’ll just have to fake that part…

AWN: In light of Gerben and the influence he’s had on the Ottawa Festival, what kind of influence do you think OIAF has had on other international festivals?

CR: Some festivals, especially in terms of the influence Gerben has had, or that Ottawa has had, truly care about fostering a sense of community in the animation scene. They’re not just coming along to exploit it and make a quick buck. You can see it in events like the GLAS festival, the New Chitose Airport International Animation Festival, in Japan, the Animateka festival in Slovenia.

GLAS is a good example where they’re not following the straight and supposedly easy line that some other people have already tried to follow and failed miserably. GLAS has taken a different route and they’ve tried to really push the artistic side of things and expand those boundaries of animation a little bit. They’ve really taken a chance on that and I think that’s really interesting to see. I think GLAS and some of these others can be good, maybe shaking up some of the old festivals as well. I know we’ve influenced GLAS and I’ve certainly been opened up to some new things from them as well. And other festivals.

AWN: One of the things we’ve noticed is a resurgence of screenings of abstract and experimental animation. It’s not that all of a sudden people have started making non-narrative films. Rather, it seems as though people have been making these films all along but more of them are now being presented to audiences.

CR: Yeah, and I think, even in Annecy, where before Marcel Jean arrived there was not a chance in hell you were going to see a non-narrative film in competition. Or the times you did — I can remember being there in the 90s and they showed an experimental film and people didn’t hesitate to boo. There are really some close-minded attitudes and I think Marcel — to his credit — has opened that up a bit more. It’s pushed to the side with the  separate Off Limits competition, they don’t put them into the main competition, but at least they’re showing them, so. I don’t know, I think there’s more than a willingness to do that. Maybe there’s just a boredom with narrative. You know it just gets a bit tedious and limiting after a while. And we’re living in a chaotic time that perfectly mirrors abstract film so, it seems appropriate.

AWN: Let’s talk about this year’s selections. Are there any films in the lineup that you don’t think festival-goers will get a chance to see elsewhere?

CR: Yeah, there’s always going to be something that there not likely to see at other festivals or at other venues. I think that’s still the strange thing, that despite all of the advances that have been made, all of the enormous amount of films being made, short and feature, with Vimeo and YouTube, this is still pretty much the best place to see a lot of this stuff. This is about the only place. I don’t know specifically which ones, hopefully they will all be seen, and people will have a chance to see them somewhere again, but you’ll never see them in an environment like Ottawa, that’s for sure.

AWN: That is true. Talk about your approach to curating selections.

CR: I put a lot of work into the ordering of each screening. Really, my big passion is ordering it, so I like sitting in the theater during the festival and seeing how that actually played off. And I’ve said it time and again, it’s like putting together a mix tape, so it’s nice to sit in there and see if it still works with the flow, the rhythm that I had going originally, and how the audience reacts to it.

Yeah, that’s kind of the interesting part — the overall reaction people have. You sit there internally and probably predict how this film or that film is probably a grand prize winner, but that’s not really my job.

AWN: Do you have a theme or anything that you use as a guide as you’re making selections?

CR: A theme? No. Maybe once or twice that’s happened where I kind of looked back at the final list of shorts and saw something there. Like one year I saw kind of an obvious theme that I thought would be funny to put together but, no, it’s more of a rhythm. I’ll listen. I’ll put the end credits from one of the films on and just listen to the rhythm of that film and that will quickly go into what I think is going to be the next film. It really is just like making a mix tape. It’s almost, fittingly, like making a set of collage films.

AWN: So the films themselves tell you whether there’s a theme or not?

CR: Yeah, but quite often I don’t even piece it together. It’d be during or after the festival where somebody says, “Oh, there’s a lot of films dealing with da da da,” and it’s like, oh, I didn’t even notice. There have been years with themes going on that I can connect to my personal life, it’s clear. Some type of reflection or some type of topic or theme that must be pressing in my daily life that’s seeped into the program. Which I think is fine. I think it’s honest and it’s cool on what makes each festival kind of different. You have all these different influences that go into a selection. Some of them very conscious and maybe some of them not so conscious initially.

AWN: So every year, the Ottawa festival has a new jury. How is the jury is selected?

CR: I try to find like six really terrible people and mix them all together.

AWN: Define terrible.

CR: Fireworks. You know, just vile hateful ugly people.

AWN: Of course.

CR: Except that I can’t find any people like that in animation.

I like to pick people I know a little bit, who I’ve had some experience with on an intimate level. People who I respect and think would make interesting jurists. And sometimes it’s economic as well. There’s a gender balance. There’s issues of national representation and whatnot. So you have to consider those things. But for the most part, it’s more of a one-to-one, do I like this person, do I think they’re going to bring an open mind?

And Ottawa is unique especially for the short film jury because we’re one of the only festivals that shows commercial stuff and experimental stuff and whatnot all mixed in together, so you really do need people who are able to appreciate both sides of it.

AWN: And now you’re looking at the proliferation of virtual reality as well.

CR: Yeah, this is the first year we’re doing VR as a competition. We’ve been showing VR for the last few years, and it has finally reached a point where it made sense to add it as a competition category.

AWN: How many VR entries did the festival receive?

CR: We got about 22 projects, but we put the cap at five. I wasn’t involved in the selections.

AWN: You weren’t?

CR: No, I kind of have my corner that I enjoy. I’m not a big VR person, so I don’t think it’s fair. I’m sure I’m capable of judging it, I don’t really think that’s an issue, but it just wouldn’t be fair. I’m not as interested or passionate about it as some of my colleagues, so I left it to them.

AWN: Are there any other talks that you want to draw people’s attention to?

CR: Yeah, especially on the indie side: Steven Subotnick, Lewis Klahr, Stacey Steers, and Nicholas Brault, who’s from Montreal. He’s made these really cool films in the last few years, using sugar that he solidified. He used medical imaging, so he’s going to do a master class taking people through his process [Body-Mind-World: Unusual and Futuristic Animation Techniques]. He’s somebody who’s really explored new techniques, so I think that will be interesting to show. Especially because we get a lot of student animators who come to the festival so I think all of these are going to be interesting.

Steven Subotnick is another filmmaker attendees will find interesting to hear. For the first ten years or so of his career, he was taking years to make a film because he was a perfectionist about it, and then, around 2011, he just kind of said, “Oh, fuck it.” Actually, he’s very polite so I’m pretty sure he didn’t say exactly that but, after years of trying to be perfect, he took a different approach, and all of a sudden he put out all of these short, kind of improvised and rushed films, and they’ve been fantastic. He talks a lot about not being so hard on yourself, and how it doesn’t all have to be so perfect and pristine.

AWN: And John Morena. He has a little bit of that same approach.

CR: Yeah, he’ll be on the Meet the Filmmakers panels something like four or five times. His whole story is fascinating. That’s another one for students, or even beyond students. Even here in Canada you get lot of moaning, “oh, I don’t have a grant to make my film.” Okay, this guy just made one film a week for a year. You have Steven Woloshen — another example of people who just do it. It’s not for everybody, but I think that’s actually a good message for newcomers to animation. You know, there’s all sorts of avenues you can explore. You don’t often need a lot of money.

AWN: You mentioned students. How many student submissions did you receive this year?

CR: Over a thousand. Probably about twelve hundred or so.

AWN: And do you find that they’re fairly consistent in terms of quality?

CR: No, it’s pretty all over the place — you see the whole gambit. Even from individual schools — and there are certain schools that you know are going to be pretty good, like National Film and Television School, Royal College of Art, stuff like that — there’s quite a wide range.

AWN: I know you love this question: Are there any trends among the student films that you’ve noticed?

CR: I don’t know if it’s particularly students, but there are more and more films dealing with everyday issues. Like we have a film that’s about using a tampon. I can’t remember ever seeing a film about using a tampon. But every year there’s more of a willingness to dig into to seemingly mundane, everyday subjects. At one point, it may have seemed risqué. I can’t imagine someone in the 70s or 80s making a film about using a tampon. So you’re seeing more of that. Just openly dealing with female issues. Where it’s becoming normal now. Like dealing with mental health issues or addiction, you know, bigger themes.

Again, I don’t know if it was specifically students, but I did notice films that are starting to question social media and the use of devices all the time, kind of looking at what kind of effect that’s having on us, on our daily lives and our ability to communicate with other people. If there was one trend that I could remember, that was certainly one of them. What effect does all this technology and especially social media having on our daily lives?

AWN: Going through this year’s selections, there are a lot of superstars. Can you name some of the other, perhaps less well-known filmmakers that attendees should also be paying attention to?

CR: If I go through the list of films in the short competition, there are a lot of familiar names. Xi Chen, from China, who did Fly in a Restaurant, he’s made a number of interesting films that I think merit a little more applause. Elizabeth Hobbs from the U.K. I think is a fantastic animator. They’re both known a little bit more within the community, but still not quite on that upper echelon.

This year we have Riho Unt, from Estonia, who did Mary and the 7 Dwarfs — he did Master a few years ago and he’s a veteran of animation but like many Estonian animators he’s been kind of lost in the shadows of Priit Pärn. He’s finally starting to get a little bit noticed as well.

Amanda Strong is someone who I think has been fallen under the radar. She’s a Canadian indigenous animator, and has a film, Biidaaban, in competition this year. Last year she had a film, Four Faces of the Moon, that won best Canadian film. She’s kind of up and coming but I think she’s making her mark pretty fast. Boris Labbé is another filmmaker who should get more notice. There’s a whole lot of people.

AWN: Talk about the feature selections a little bit. One of the things I love about Ottawa is you don’t necessarily rely on commercial success as a standard when choosing your films.

CR: Well, first of all — in North America in particular — there’s a big battle over theatrical rights, over getting things to the cinema, that it’s become such a hassle sometimes to even get stuff that’s not going to be that commercially successful. It’s a challenge dealing with feature distributors. It’s a pain in the ass, to be frank, sometimes. Over the years we used to chase after some stuff that might be more high-profile, but I finally said enough of this. First of all, they’re going to get distribution, so what’s the point? We’re about showcasing new stuff, helping new stuff find an audience and I think that’s especially important with features now. So there is an emphasis on work that maybe’s not going to find a major audience, that has kind of an independent bent to it as well. I think the six or seven films that we have this year all kind of fall into that.

AWN: Absolutely, and I’m especially thinking of This Magnificent Cake, which is just an amazing film to watch but might struggle to find a wider audience.

CR: It’s a very accessible film I think for the most part. Very engaging and an audience would really relate to that film or easily get engaged to that. Another one is that should find a big family audience is Captain Morten and the Spider Queen. It’s an innovative stop-motion kids movie from Estonia and Ireland that should get distribution, but will it? I don’t know. Stuff like that. And, you know, more hardcore stuff like Joanna Priestley’s North of Blue, which is, like, an hour of abstract animation. It isn’t going to be a major release but it should be seen.

We have one feature, Ville Neuve, that will be making its world premiere. it’s from the co-producers of Louise en hiver, which won the grand prize in Ottawa in 2016. It’s a film made in Canada, in Quebec, a really beautiful, poetic film. So I think that’s going to be a surprise for many people. Again, I don’t see any reason why you couldn’t show it in mainstream cinemas or art house cinemas. I don’t know if you’ll see a lot of these outside the festival.

AWN: Last question. If bitterness had a flavor, what flavor would that be?

CR: Asparagus. I know it’s not a flavor. It’s just that I just hate asparagus.

Jennifer Wolfe is Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.

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