Did I mention I was going to the Ottawa International Animation Festival this year? I’m here now.
And as time allows, I’m trying to write a live blog reaction to the event for each day.
You’ll find a couple other articles about what it’s like to attend OIAF online, and after the 4oth event this year I’m sure you will find more. But I wanted to write one from my perspective: I have never been here before, and avoided doing so because the animation in competition, especially from the last decade or so, were all obscure independent works that I had never heard of.
When I go to any film festival, I expect to see dozens of films in the list, and at least a couple I’ve heard of and can be excited to see. OIAF has 7 feature films and countless of short films this year, and I have not heard of or seen any of the projects or artists before now. This has been the way for the schedule as I’ve followed it for the last few years. What about The Red Turtle, Kizumonogatari II, Miss Hokusai, Your Name., all of which are critically/fan-acclaimed works that have planned limited releases within months of this festival? Most of these are anime, but I have heard of them, and expect all to receive a home video release next year, more so than anything else in competition here. It also stings that there is virtually no animation from Japan at OIAF… there are plenty of anime-cons already, and too much anime would draw in a completely different type of crowd, but when Japan seemingly produces over half of the world’s animation and has some of the highest quality studios today, this feels like borderline racism.
OIAF is really a festival of “independent” animation, more so than “international”. Despite claiming to be North America’s largest animation event, other events like France’s Annecy or Waterloo’s defunct Festival for Animated Cinema all have better selection to view. Even Montreal’s regular film festivals and Toronto’s TIFF tend to bring in more notable animated films.
But darn it, I love animation, so I had to come and see what this was all about. I put my worries aside and came.
The Animation Festival in 2016 took place in 5 different Ottawa venues: the ByTowne Theatre hosts all of the main screenings, the Arts Court is the volunteer and pass-pick-up headquarters with a screening room and art gallery, St Brigid’s Center of the Arts is an old church that hosts the career fair and talks, and the National Art Gallery hosts additional screenings. These 4 are within a 10 minute walking distance of each other around Ottawa’s downtown core. The only outlier is the outdoor party location around 55 Sussex Drive, which is about a 30 minute walk from everything else, still surprisingly walkable thanks to generous sidewalks to walk/bike throughout the city. This last location is only for certain events at the late night anyway.
If you’re looking for a cheap hotel, I stayed at the Swiss Hotel, a small place with modern design. This was the cheapest hotel I could find in the area, and was literally less than a 5 minute walk from both the ByTowne arthouse Theatre and Arts Court, where the majority of my time was spent. The Days Inn is also a good second choice, the front desk is two steps away from the ByTowne Theatre entrance.
The festival schedule was jam-packed in 2016, ensuring you had something to do the entire 5 days of the festival. Frankly, it was exhausting for me, I’d recommend 3-4 days as being enough (the opening and awards ceremonies are worth staying for out of interest). Most film screenings were offered at least twice during the week.
TAC has some events the whole day, but OIAF does not officially start until the evening. Plenty of time to travel by plane to get here. Thankfully, the city bus stops at the airport and takes me pretty close to the location. I lucked out and got a hip little hotel room only steps away from most of the venues.
At 7pm, the first feature opened. “Window Horses” had the animation of a student film, but sharp writing and clever imagery made it a delight, a smart and funny drama about cultural borders, family and poetry. The official opening ceremony afterwards had some less-than-formal speeches, and the first short-film competition. Shout out to “(Otto)”, “Suijun-Genten (Datum Point)”, “De Staat ‘Witch Doctor'”, “Piano” and “Happy End” as my personal favourites. And from the sex and violence in these short films alone, it’s clear kids should be careful when attending some of the screenings.
The lineups were long, but we were able to squeeze into the theatre with a few seats to spare. Someone mentioned about 1,500 attendees staying for all 5 days, a big number, but again less than what film festivals in smaller cities (like Windsor, Ontario) claim to receive. But I am still impressed, and excited to be here. It’s clear this is going to be fun with a capital F for all. Animation is king, and it is here in spades.
Currently, it is September 30… what happened? The festival was busier than I thought, and I was just exhausted by the time it was all over. But I’ll write the rest here quickly now before heading out to work.
Day 2 and Day 3 were mostly dedicated to TAC (“The Animation Conference”). What is TAC? It’s a separate event also hosted by OIAF, targeted to industry professionals who want to connect and learn about the latest trends. The pass for this is about twice the price of OIAF and was only 3 days instead of 5. What’s the benefit? For a small fee, you can get an upgrade to a pass that includes both TAC and OIAF. You get access to several lectures about the business and technology of animation. You get access to a “boat cruise” and networking lunch that get’s you close to professionals you want to connect with. Also, access to pitching competitions and other such opportunities. And also a special screening where the audience has some choice (?), so you can see a film you might miss if you can’t attend OIAF full-time.
Personally, OIAF was already a crowded schedule, I couldn’t do both OIAF and TAC, so I skipped TAC. Most of the lectures were available to both anyway (some daily emails gave surprise announcements that even additional TAC-only lectures were made open to the public at the last minute). The real benefit of TAC is for those ultra serious to get a job this year, prepared with their portfolios and business cards. I like the idea of research/professional animation conferences, hopefully they continue to add more than just typical business information I can find online.
Anyway, the screenings weren’t too impressive today… I will mention “Louise en Hiver”, a mild adventure of an elderly woman left alone in a deserted beach town for almost a year. It actually used 3D animation for the main character, but 2D for most background characters and environments, the opposite of what most other films do. And it worked: you can barely tell the difference! This is a example of mimicking 2D animation getting closer to the ideal.
TAC finishes today, and ends with the TAC/OIAF infamous “animator’s picnic.” I don’t know why it was so infamous… it’s just an outdoor picnic with good-quality pork sandwiches and salads. Also, a pumpkin-carving competition most people didn’t bother with.
I finally got to see “Psiconautas” and “Nerdland”, the animated features I was actually interested in from the schedule. The former is a post-apocalyptic vision using cute animal characters, disturbing but mature, a true artist’s work. “Nerdland” is a crude-humour-filled parody of society, and met with roars of laughter and groans from the audience, a highlight for the high-level voice acting if nothing else.
I will mention shorts “Sugar Lump” and “Velodrool” as standouts in the shorts-competition for me.
After all of this, I saw all the features and main-shorts competition (only the student competitions were left). I had missed a special series of sessions that shows past winners from OIAF’s 40-year history… no doubt attendees this year got a lot for their money.
Today was a career fair open to OIAF attendees. Students (mainly high-school and college) came in crowds, looking for opportunities with Nelvana, Nickelodeon, and even Disney Television Studios! A couple lectures also previewed Disney’s and Pixar’s latest theatrical short films with some behind-the-scenes commentary. I took the day to try the VR exhibitions on display at OIAF, 4 total, one of which was a Claymation project (I didn’t think it was possible, but there is was), and to buy a couple dvds and books from the new OIAF boutique (nothing from current festival on sale besides tshirts and posters at the table, but a few rare books and dvds from older international festivals were still in stock).
The awards ceremony on Saturday night announced the judges’ selections for feature and short categories, and a audience choice for short as well (I disagree with some of the choices of course, but all were deserving). This was also the first year the “NightOwl” party began, and hopefully not the last: aside from dancing and drinking, there were also quieter sections of live-sketch drawing of cosplay models, a collaborative live-animation session using new in-development software, and some local video games to play (hello? why wasn’t I invited to demo stuff? where was the application for this?). I am normally the last person to enjoy a party, but this had something for everyone, and in a room full of quiet art students and hipsters, I felt right at home.
Not much to discuss here… I saw a couple screenings I missed earlier of Canadian short films in competition, then left to the airport. If you stayed late, you got a chance to catch the final screening: all the short films that won awards the night before. There was also a final party, if you didn’t feel tired yet.
Ok, this wasn’t in depth as much as I hoped, but I think it gives a good idea of what to expect.
What OIAF gives is a half-week of short-films you might not otherwise see, a few features you might not otherwise see, talks from animation professionals, and parties with other animation fans. There’s plenty to do, and it’s worth going to at least once if you are an animation fan or professional.
However, I now realize there are 3 types of animated film: Hollywood-level (shown at your local theater, DVD at your local store), niche-level (shown for 1-2 nights at a theater in your country, DVD on niche online stores) and independent level (shown as festivals like this, and no where else, no DVD likely). This festival is strictly in the last category, meaning nothing I ever was excited for had a mention at this festival, and nothing I saw at OIAF will likely ever be seen again. It’s a self-indulgent and self-contained spectacle that provides an outlet for thousands of animators who might not ever get any attention, but may remain unable to receive attention outside the most well-versed of the industry. On one hand, it may not be worth travelling to see something you can own later, but I find it disappointing that OIAF’s catalogue cannot be publically available in some form.
I can’t imagine going every year (being Canadian, I may stop by every 2-3 years to see the latest in indie-ani-trends). For professionals, it sounds like SIGGRAPH in North America is still the only acceptable option as a indispensable venue, despite being restrictive to only computer graphics. For fans, ANNECY in Europe remains the place where most niche animated films premiere. Even TAAFI in Toronto matched the general atmosphere and provided the same type of material as OIAF. For people like me, I’ll stay at theatres within an hour’s drive from my small apartment, where almost all movies I care about seem to get a limited release at some point anyway.
Update – September 17, 2017
Despite what I suggested in the blog post here in 2016, I find myself preparing to go again to the Ottawa International Animation Festival in 2017, later this week. While I was exhausted from the last trip, the animation itch didn’t stay away for long. I will not be attending the entire festival this time; for most attendees, I suspect 2-3 days is more than plenty of time to catch most of your intended viewings. To attend all 5 days would only make sense if you wanted to see absolutely everything (every feature and short film in contest, plus most/all of the talks), or if you were attending the professional TAC conference for most of that time. OIAF is good a obliging by offering a variety of passes, whether you attend for a day or the week.
I suspect, instead of adding a new blog post every year I go, I will add to this already long post if I have anything extra to say. And I do, because the main reason I’m coming back this year is for the feature films. Unlike last year, OIAF 2017 has 3 major animated films I’ve been looking forward to for over a year since their original announcement: “The Breadwinner” (not in contest) from acclaimed studio Cartoon Saloon, just weeks after its international premiere at TIFF in Toronto, “Lu Over The Wall” from director Masaaki Yuasa, and “Night is Short, Walk On Girl” also from Yuasa. Even the other competition films “I’ll Just Live in Bando,” “My Dogs Jinjin and Akida” I think I’ve heard of before, the only exception being “Torrey Pines,” which is new to me.
This is unprecedented for a few reasons. Never have I seen a competition schedule from OIAF in past years (although I haven’t looked farther than the past decade or so) that contained so many films I recognized, such that I was excited to see them from the title alone. Another thing is that of the 5 films in contest, 4 are from Asian markets (2 from Japan, 2 from South Korea), the 5th being from the USA. I’ve never seen such prominence from that area of the world at OIAF… and this happened the year after my blog posts where I quietly suggested discrimination against Japan in a Canadian festival of their most celebrated export. This is likely just coincidence, but is not the first time that my blog has been read and acted upon, reminding me that there is a world outside my little bubble. I’m embarrassed… hi Internet? I didn’t see you there.
As I said early in this post, anime from Japan already has a fanbase and they are already well accommodated. Anime conventions seem to exist in almost every city across North America now, where general animation might have 3-4 across the continent. OIAF doesn’t need to cater to this crowd directly, especially if they want to avoid cos-players arguing about who “best-girl” is in a director’s past work. But there are definitely a few titles from anime that have artistic merit each year, either well-suited to internation critics or at least to a general family audience (ie: not relying on merchandise sales of mecha toys and manga). Yuasa as a director has always been a independent mind that never appeared to cater to anime trends, giving him a small but appreciative set of followers. To have his 2 films is appropriate and welcome, and that an artist is releasing 2 films in the same year is a treat on its own. And South Korea has quickly permeated its culture into North America over the past decade, I recall their efforts in animation as a country failed to make its mark before, but maybe now is their time. That I don’t recognize the final film, the only film from the USA, perhaps speaks to what news I follow… even so, it’s synopsis makes me a bit less excited than the others, but still excited all the same. And since I have heard of these films, I pray that they actually will get a home video release (in comparison, of the 7 features last year, only 3 have received or will receive a DVD in the USA, the ones that actually won awards were quickly forgotten forevermore… <<sigh>>…).
I am a little concerned however. While I appreciate 2D animation, I more-so appreciate variety, such that ideally the films in contest should have at least 1 CGI, 1 stop-motion, and 1 2D animated work. This isn’t easy each year to collect, but to have no CGI features in main competition, even when it still exceeds the others in mainstream? And 2017 is Canada’s 150th anniversary, something the government in Ottawa (the country’s capital) has spent years preparing for. I know the country’s general populace has seemingly given up any celebration in wake of recent global politics and youth worrying about debt and job security, but couldn’t there have been more of a presence this year in Canadian animation?
I don’t think I will ever be fully satisfied with any festival’s selections, the same as how most people never fully agree with the award winners in film, music or television outside of animation. Never mind me. I’m excited. OIAF 2017, I’m coming back.