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July 7, 2011

northwest animation festival 2011

by sven at 8:00 pm

NW Animation Fest: June 3-5, 2011

The inaugural Northwest Animation Festival took place just over a month ago. This was by far the most ambitious event I've ever organized: 78 films from nine countries, shown over the course of three days.

1. 5th Ave Cinema

The 5th Ave Cinema was an excellent first venue. We had 100 seats, low rental fees, and full control of projection from a kiosk at the front of the room.

2. line to purchase tickets

A majority of tickets were purchased in advance. Our Will Call table was set up just in front of the doors to Auditorium 2. The line for tickets stretched down the hall, but moved quickly once we opened the doors.

3. Temris Ridge and Gretchin Lair staff the ticket table

An important part of running an event smoothly is having enough volunteers. Depending on the night, we had up to eight positions:

A huge THANK YOU to everyone who helped out: Jeff & Dielle Alexandre, Carly Hirano, Gretchin Lair, Jessica Lockwood, Nick Nall, Temris & Matt Ridge, and Rebekah Villon.

4. filmmaker name badges

A lot of effort went into making the event's ephemera beautiful. The festival's logo went on our programs, tickets, filmmaker name badges, buttons, and some of the signage. Wherever we needed signs, I was sure to use the festival's font: century gothic.

5. NWAF button

Gretchin generously took on a last-minute project at my request, producing a batch of 50 buttons as a special freebie for filmmakers and volunteers. Thanks to Bridget Benton of Eyes Aflame for lending us the button-making machine.

6. Jeff Alexandre hands out programs

What makes a film festival different from just going out to see a movie at the cineplex? People. It begins with your interaction with the event staff, from ticket table to usher to emcee… And then during the show, it's getting to do Q&A with the filmmakers. It's a very different, more social experience when you know that the people who made the films are seated all around you in the audience. At the end of every film, the audience applauded. I didn't know to expect that — but it was awesome!

7. entering the auditorium

Coming into the auditorium, I wanted people to feel like they were entering a special, magical space. Lights were dimmed, the festival logo was on screen, and pre-show music set the mood (Cirque du Soleil.)

8. find your seats

As people found their seats, I was delighted to say hello to many friends and acquaintances who'd made it out for the show. One of my few regrets is that I was unable to personally give all the filmmakers a proper greeting. Having spent so much time with their artistic works, I'd developed a fondness for these people I'd never met.

9. welcome to the festival

The job of an emcee is to shape expectations. Why are we here today? How should we judge the films we're watching? When do we start, take breaks, and end? Where can we congregate after the show? And when's the next festival going to be?

People just need to know what's going to happen. Focus on that, and you've got a good chance of avoiding Interminable Opening Speech Syndrome.

10. my welcome speech

There IS a place for talking at length about the big vision, though: the director's statement in the program. Here's what I said in mine:

I’m an animator myself. I love this magical art. So what do I want from an animation festival?

I want an abundant FEAST. Not just a dozen films — a hundred films!

I want to inspire fellow artists to make new work. The festival should stimulate imaginations — and give a concrete answer to that awful question, “What do I do with my film once it’s done?”

I want to help artists grow. I envision every animator being on a path to creating the best work of their life. Something profound or beautiful or funny or moving. Not everyone who submitted this year could be in the fest, but my hope is that everyone who stays on the path eventually WILL be shown.

Portland is an animation town. There is a family of artists here. The festival should be our annual family reunion, where we watch new talents gradually develop into masters.

It’s important to showcase the breadth of what’s being done with animation. There needs to be a place for people who still draw toons with pencil and paper; people who make vectors, layers, and Bézier curves in a computer; people who pose puppets one frame at a time; people who are making up entirely new ways to bring the still image to life.

Some films should be works of genius that just blow you away. But I also want to give screen time to the ones that make you say, “What a neat idea — maybe even I could do that!”

It’s OK if not every film in the program is your cup of tea. I’m confident that there will be something here for everyone. Hopefully you’ll get to experience a little bit of the delight that I’ve had while sifting through submissions… Discovering a collection of gems that dazzle.

— Sven Bonnichsen

11. shhh...

I was surprised at how different the feel of the crowd was each night. Friday night people had a hard time getting settled down; some were arriving up to a half-hour late. Saturday, everything when remarkably smoothly, and people seemed to arrive ready to be absorbed in the films. Sunday I thought the room felt just a bit lethargic.

12. Q&A with Dayan Paul, Christina Beard, Mike Smith, Dean Holmes

After each block of films, I'd invite all the filmmakers whose films had just screened to come up and answer questions from the audience. Gretchin coached me to say something like "So, what did you think?" immediately after the end of the films, to get a reaction from the crowd and warm them up. Justin Rasch helped me better understand the need to start the Q&A with some questions of my own, giving the audience a little time to start formulating what they might be curious about.

13. Mike Smith discusses Missionary

It's a special experience to be the filmmaker taking questions. None of your answers feel entirely adequate. You're hoping that the next question is directed to you — and simultaneously that the next question is NOT for you. You're standing beside these other filmmakers whose works just blew your mind… But for all the clumsiness, there's a rush of adrenalin from being in the spotlight. And even though all that you've done is stand up at the front of the room, somehow that actually does make you an authority — and everyone in the audience contributes their suspension of disbelief toward making that role a shared reality.

14. Q&A with Eric Kilkenny, Michael P. Glover, Marilyn Zornado, Barbara Tetenbaum, Andrew Brown

The festival was broken into 8 blocks of films. On Friday and Sunday I scheduled two 1-hour blocks, followed by a half-hour featurette. On Saturday I showed two 75min blocks. From the feedback I heard, both ways provided adequate time for stretching and using the restroom. The 75min blocks were significantly more difficult for me to assemble, though.

15. Q&A with John Davide, Jesse Brennan, Michael Graham, Adam Fisher

There's an art to creating a good line-up of films. I used three tools:

I tried to put the very strongest films at the beginning and end of blocks. I tried to make sure there were short "palette cleansers" between longer films. I did a lot of color-coding in the spreadsheet, noting which films were light and funny, dark and gothic, or impenetrably abstract. I had further color tags to indicate whether a film was 2D, CG, stopmo, or hybrid/exotic.

16. Justin Rasch discusses Gerald's Last Day

Basically, assembling a program of films is like creating a giant mix tape. Variety is crucial, and you have to pay a lot of attention to the highs and lows of mood/energy. The temptation to put all the dark, bleak films on one day must be resisted! Or, by the same token, the urge to group all environmental films on one day. Avoid theme!

17. audience during Q&A

Despite juggling all those factors — strength, length, animation method, happy/sad, energy level — problematic similarities would still emerge. For instance, four films made conspicuous use of butterflies. Three featured skeletons. Two films had almost identical guitar riffs. The first shorts block had an overabundance of films where the predominant color was either white or muted/desaturated hues...

You do your best. I was very pleased to hear folks saying that the program seemed well-balanced. When it works, you don't even mind watching the films that "aren't your thing," because you trust that something else that you will like is only a film or two away.

18. lobby during intermission

Depending on how many filmmakers were present for a particular block, I'd facilitate 5-7 questions, then go to intermission. People milled in the lobby and hallway.

We brought along a chime that was Gretchin's signature "time's up" sound back when she was running Artist's Way classes. Ringing it was en elegant way to let folks know when it was time to return to their seats.

19. popcorn provided by Scarlet Star Studios

Another nifty thing about 5th Ave Cinema is that for an additional fee, you can provide free popcorn for your entire audience. Gretchin was marvelous, and donated popcorn to the festival. Because I was wearing my Festival Director hat, it was only slightly strange to be thanking Scarlet Star Studios for the generosity.

20. hot buttered popcorn!

During the films, all the volunteers got to come into the auditorium and watch the program. Really, though, we could almost have had someone staffing the ticket table during the whole show. One night we had someone purchase a ticket for just the last half hour. Apparently they weren't very impressed with the John Wayne film in Auditorium 1, and wandered over to see what we had to offer.

21. Matthew Dan and Jesse Brennan chat during intermission

Both ASIFA-Portland and Cascade ACM SIGGRAPH were very helpful in getting word out about the festival. I'm embarrassed that I forgot to give either one time for promoting their group from the stage until the last day. It also took until Sunday to figure out where we could put an info table that wouldn't block traffic... And to start encouraging people to sign up for the email list to be notified about the next NWAF event.

I hope to foster community among animators, and for NWAF to become a valued community gathering. There's room for improvement.

22. Dayan Paul brought freebie mouse pads to promote Courageous Crustaceans

Several people traveled from out of state for the festival:

And the winner for our imaginary "traveled furthest to be here" award?

23. get seated for the next block of films

I was careful to let everyone know what we could and couldn't offer at our first festival — and still they came! It was a shock (albeit a pleasant one) when the first person let me know that they'd bought plane tickets. Suddenly the event became so much more real... Other people believed in it enough to make a journey!

24. more Q&A with the filmmakers

Most of the filmmakers currently living in Portland were able to come at least for their own film. Attendees included: