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PARK CITY 2001: Cartoon Networking; Will the Future of Indie Animation Be a ‘Yo!’ or a ‘Doh!’?

PARK CITY 2001: Cartoon Networking; Will the Future of Indie Animation Be a 'Yo!' or a 'Doh!'?

PARK CITY 2001: Cartoon Networking; Will the Future of Indie Animation Be a 'Yo!' or a 'Doh!'?

by Richard Baimbridge

(indieWIRE/01.23.01) — As that buzz phrase of yester-year, digital video, continues to ripple across the cinematic landscape, the democratizing effect of technology remains in its early stages when it comes to the field of indie animation. Certainly, there has been a revolution over the past few years within the insular world of computer-animated short films, and some extremely promising work has emerged from the genre. But the time and cost involved in making features — the true test of indie animation’s commercial viability — is still, for the most part, prohibitive.

The sudden spike in the number of animation films at Sundance this year is a telling sign that the status quo is rapidly changing. The most obvious example, of course, is “Waking Life,” which has generated more hype going into Sundance than any other film at the festival. Directed by Richard Linklater, who is marking the 10th anniversary of the Sundance premiere of his feature, “Slacker,” with two films in this year’s fest, “Waking Life” was made using homemade software developed by Austin, Texas’ Bob Sabiston. The film stars Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy, Timothy “Speed” Levitch (from Bennett Miller‘s “The Cruise“), as well as several non-actors, who consult with Wiley Wiggins (“Dazed and Confused“) as he embarks on a non-corporeal, ontological odyssey of enlightenment.

Shot entirely as a live-action feature on DV cameras, then transferred to Macintosh G4 computers, the actual animation was carried out by thirty Austin artists, many of whom were technologically illiterate. Using an updated version of rotoscoping, the animators essentially “painted” over video footage. Backing came from the Independent Film Channel and Thousand Words Productions, making it an unprecedented indie affair given that, in the past, the average budget for a computer animated feature has been in excess of $50 million.

And since internet service provider Earthlink has taken the liberty of…well, let’s be diplomatic and say “imitating” Sabiston’s software to create their new television advertisements (mistakenly attributed by many to Sabiston and partner Tommy Pallotta), it’s no longer a matter of conjecture that the process will be picked up by other filmmakers.

Whether it’s computer animation, or a hybrid of techniques, as in the case of the hip-hop turn-tablist creature-from-outta-space flick, “Wave Twisters,” adult animation is enjoying greater respect and visibility than ever before at Sundance. That’s not to say the festival has been blind to the art form until now — last year’s program included a major retrospective of Faith Hubley‘s work (while daughter Emily Hubley contributed animation sequences to this year’s selection “Hedwig and the Angry Inch“). And rogue animator Bill Plympton, who returns this year with “Mutant Aliens,” has scored Sundance hits in the past. But there has definitely been a shift in thinking on the part of Sundance as of late, according to John Cooper, associate director of programming for the festival.

“We set our minds to bringing in more animation a few years ago at [Robert] Redford‘s request,” says Cooper. “Animation has become more popular lately, and cheaper to produce, which has opened the door for more independent work. Because it was so expensive before, there wasn’t a lot of room for risk taking. Sundance is always looking for innovative and challenging work, and now there’s more and more of that coming from the world of animation, so I think you’ll see more of it here in the future.”

Indeed, the animation craze is even spilling over even to live action films,
including the gorgeous work of Emily Hubley appearing in what is undoubtedly one of the strongest films to come out of Sundance in memory, “Hedwig and The Angry Itch.” Animation also played a role in the “The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys,” which was unfortunately pulled from the festival as it was not completed on time.

Cooper says that last year during a visit to Portland, Oregon, he discovered the city’s unusually strong community of indie animators, many of whom work in a co-op studio run by claymation genius Will Vinton (creator of the California Raisins). The trip inspired Cooper to organize a special event this year, “A Celebration of Portland Animation,” which features renowned animators like Jim Blashfield and Joan Gratz, as well as some of the city’s up and coming artists. “I think every year from now on we will have some kind of animation program, either focusing on a certain style, place, or individual filmmaker,” Cooper says.

But the question of whether that will translate into greater prospects for animators to get theatrical distribution remains open. Certainly this year all eyes will be on “Waking Life,” which will likely receive distribution whether it is sold or not, thanks to the Independent Film Channel’s own distribution wing. But a reasonably favorable reception for “Waking Life” could mean a boon for animators submitting work to Sundance and other festivals.

Yet even the film’s creators have serious doubts that “Waking Life” will be a runaway success. Its non-linear, abstract plot makes “Magnolia” look like a Ronald Reagan flick in comparison, with pontifications that, unless you have a master’s degree in contemporary social theory can sometimes make the eyes glaze over. Still, “Waking Life” is beautiful to simply sit back and watch, and it is especially mesmerizing if you occasionally pause to remind yourself that, essentially, this was all done by small-town people using souped-up personal computers.

“What I really love about ‘Waking Life’ is that it is a truly indie film from concept to execution,” says Linklater. “But let’s face it,” he adds candidly, “I think people are going to take mushrooms and watch it on video.”

Then again, that’s what he thought about “Slacker.”

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