I became an animation fan -- a true aficionado -- early in life. It had little or nothing to do with children's shows on television (Hanna-Barbera, Speed Racer, Gigantor, et al), though I watched and liked most of them. Rather, it was probably when I first saw Fantasia (likely mid-1960s), and then The Jungle Book (1967) and (of course!) The Beatles' Yellow Submarine (1968). By that time, I was actively looking for good (or great) animation. I was not a fan of Disney (though I have a sentimental fondness for The Aristocats (1970)), and anime feature films did not become widely known in the U.S. until the 1980s.
So when I heard about something called the Fantastic Animation Festival in 1977, I made sure to check it out. Comprised of a series of 18 animated short films, it was exactly what animation aficionados were looking for. It opened with a short rotoscoped animated film called "French Windows" (set to the music of Pink Floyd's "One of These Days") and ended with "Closed Mondays," one of the first well-known "claymation" (stop-motion clay animation) short films by master claymation artist Will Vinton. (The show also featured the infamous "Bambi Meets Godzilla.") If memory serves, there was a second Fantastic Animation Festival (or similar group of shorts) in 1978 or 1979. It was at there that I first saw the work of Bruno Bozzetto, which led me to his 1976 classic, Allegro Non Troppo, an absolutely hysterical parody of Fantasia.
Since I am not a fan of Disney, almost an entire decade went by before I found anything worthwhile in animation. And, boy, did I find it. Akira (1988) was one of the first anime feature films to find recognition (and success) in the U.S. Using a breathtakingly "trippy" style of anime, the film is set in a dystopian future Japan, and tells the story of a biker "gang" that gets involved with a government experiment after one of its members finds he has super powers. Colorful, grim, violent, and absolutely stunning, it remains my favorite animated feature of all time.
With a few exceptions, the animation "wasteland" continued for me for many more years. So it was that in 2014, my friend Sam took me to the 16th Annual Animation Show of Shows, which is curated by Ron Diamond, founder of Acme Filmworks. [N.B. The annual Animation Show of Shows had been around since 1999, but had been shown solely to the animation industry, including college art/animation programs. The 16th Annual Animation Show of Shows was the first to be screened publicly.] Like the Fantastic Animation Festival, each show is comprised of a series of short films. After missing the 2015 grouping, I went with Sam (who is friends with Mr. Diamond) to the 2016 grouping (the 18th Annual Animation Show of Shows), which was recently screened again at the Leonard Nimoy Thalia Theater at Symphony Space.
In watching these series, one is immediately struck by just how wide a variety of animation types and styles there are: from "traditional" to watercolor, from stop-motion to claymation, from collage to puppetry, and beyond. Also interesting is the sheer number of countries from which the animators hail -- the 2016 grouping includes Scotland, Belgium, Canada, Latvia, Norway, Korea, Russia, France, Israel, and England.
The 18th Annual Animation Show of Shows opens with "Stems," a stop-motion film that serves to show how stop-motion animation is made, with narration by the animator. It is absolutely adorable, as common objects are used to create figures playing instruments. This is followed by "Shift," a non-dialogue film in a traditional animation style, which tells the story of a young, very "buttoned-down" young woman who lives on a large estate, her accidental meeting with a "free spirit" who lives in the adjoining forest, and the effect they have on each other. Short and very beautiful, it is tied for my second favorite of this grouping. [N.B. Due to some minor nudity, this short was moved toward the end of the program when I saw it in May: the final few films are more "adult."]
Next up is "Pearl," a sort of "music video," done in the relatively new form of "virtual reality animation." Although it comes off as "simple," it is deceptively complex, with nuances that can be missed the first time around. I was ambivalent about it when I saw it in 2016; now I consider it an exceptional piece of animated filmmaking. This is followed by "Crin-crin," a delightful "collage-like" animation that consists mostly of a chase after two animals steal the tail of another. The underlying music is an integral part of the film and, at about the halfway point, the animation is interspersed with real-life segments showing the four musicians playing. A very clever element, well-handled.
What do you get when you take a New Yorker magazine cover, write a fictional "back story" for it, and animate the story in (mostly) primary colors? You get "Mirror," a humorous look at how a mother and daughter have very different perceptions of something the mother says to the daughter, and how it affects (or does not affect) their lives. Heavily narrated, and amusing in a New Yorker-ish kind of way. Following this is "Last Summer in the Garden," which posits gardening as a metaphor for life and death. Done in gorgeous Impressionistic watercolor animation, it "washes" from one scene to another in gorgeous fashion.
"Waiting for the New Year" is a look at the life of a woman who takes care of grounds-keeping at a housing complex. There is no dialogue, but the music and sound effects help tell the story. Somewhat melancholy (mostly in shades of white, brown and black), it is nevertheless a beautiful story, told in a compelling manner.
"Piper" is one of Disney's two contributions to this grouping (they generally always have one). It is about the birth and first "escapade" of a sandpiper. Sweetly sentimental (as only Disney can be), one will either love it (for its "cuteness") or wince (at its "cloying" quality). "Boygen" is an abstract piece, using shapes and colors rather than figures. (According to the artist, a boygen is "a coiling force that blocks your path and strangles ambition.") Despite a brief interview with the artist giving an explanation prior to the film, I found this one only marginally interesting.
"Afternoon Class" is a hysterical look at a classroom full of very bored students, and the way in which one particular student tries (and fails) to stay awake. Using his hallucinations, and some neat sound effects, we see all the ways that boredom can affect the mind.
"About A Mother" is unquestionably my favorite film of this grouping. Done in black-and-white, using something close to stick figures, it tells the story of an African mother whose love (and hair) support her three children (and sometimes even her entire local village). The storytelling is nothing short of brilliant, and the entire effect is magical. In this case, the post-film interview with the artist (who is from Russia) actually adds something to the film.
Want to learn how to create a 90-second video in 10 seconds? Use "Exploozy," the new app for creating animation. It's a joke, of course, and the "Exploozy" app, which this very short film describes, is a parody of alleged art-creating apps. Very clever.
"Inner Workings" is tied for my second favorite of this grouping (despite the fact that it was made by Disney). It tells the story of an average Joe whose organs (inner workings) control his life -- until they realize they are killing his love for that life. Done in a very colorful Pixar-ish animation, it is simply great fun, and a joy to watch.
"Corpus" (the first of the "adult" films) is the perfect follow-up to "Inner Workings." Using hyper-real animation (virtual reality?), it shows a Rube Goldberg-esque contraption comprised of body parts and mechanical parts, which are set in motion to create an alternately comical and gruesome chain of events. The ending will leave you either laughing or gasping.
With the exception of "Boygen," "Blue" is the most abstract of the films, despite having obvious imagery. Done entirely in shades of white and blue, it seems to follow two subjects: a woman bathing and a man "cutting" himself with Xacto knives. Images of the woman, man, knives and other objects (as well as the whites and blues) segue into each other in a sort of "free associative" fashion. Other than the minimally "violent" imagery of the knives, I am not sure why this was considered too "difficult" for children; it is actually a beautiful film.
"Manoman" is almost certainly the most disturbing animated film I have ever seen. In fact, so disturbing was it the first time that I almost didn't want to stay for it the second time. Using stop-motion animation and puppet-type figurines controlled by rods, it tells the story of (I think) a repressed man who goes to a primal scream therapy group session to "open up." At first, he is unable to express his anger and rage at all. But another member of the group (who, I think, is actually the alter ego he is trying to express) not only helps him to express himself, but turns him into a monster, and the two go on a violent, hyper-id-based rampage. Everything about this film is disturbing, from the physical attributes of the protagonist (with his wide face and high-set eyes), to the entire (grotesque) figure of his alter ego, to the form of animation used, to the story itself. And the ending really puts the icing on the disturbed cake. All of which does not change the fact that this is nothing short of an astounding piece of animation filmmaking.
The final film, "All Their Shades," uses a combination of dressed-up objects (mostly light switches) and styles (stop-motion, claymation, etc.), heavily narrated by a male voice, to humorously address the "many different ways" that women can be. ("Women are not any one thing.") The twist ending will almost certainly be unexpected.
For me, any good animation is worth watching. But it is particularly worth watching when it is of the consistent caliber of these groupings. Mr. Diamond is considering a possible third screening of the 18th Annual in NYC sometime soon. Look for it, and go. If not, definitely look for the 19th Annual Animation Show of Shows, likely in Fall 2017. You won't be disappointed.