Animation, though widely-used, is still something of an under-appreciated form of art. For those interested in exploring the limits of this medium, one of the best (and only) chances they may get is through presenting their work at an animation festival. Over the years, three of these annual festivals have risen to the top in terms of age and prestige: Annecy in France, Zagreb in Croatia, and Ottawa in Canada. Thanks to generous donations from Penn Alumni, it is possible for students who study animation with Penn’s Undergraduate Fine Art Program and Penn Design to have the opportunity, through an application process over summer break, to experience one of these events for themselves: the Ottawa International Animation Festival, or OIAF.
Most of the twelve students chosen to go this year are currently enrolled in either Joshua Mosley and Erinn Hagerty’s Computer Animation class or in Mari Jaye Blanchard’s Hand Drawn Digital Animation class, however others came from backgrounds as diverse as grad students from the School of Design, dual-degree students from Wharton, and Engineers from Digital Media and Design (DMD). Among this already varied group, experience levels also ranged from veterans with several years of modeling in Maya to newcomers just beginning their first projects, involving a “synch-up” of abstract shapes to music (in Computer Animation), with each student responsible for around 10 seconds of the same musical piece, or for transforming one object into another (in Hand Draw).
Past experience did not weigh too heavily on the trip, as all of us attending OIAF were more focused on looking towards the future and seeing what we could learn about animation as both an industry and as an art form. In simple terms a competition, OIAF showcases a few hundred short films chosen from several thousand applicants, as well as a handful of feature-lengths. There are also categories ranging from children’s television programs to grad school film reels, bringing in a variety of animators from an array of nationalities.
But OIAF is not just about the competition. To start, the night we arrived on Wednesday, September 18th, the festival had organized an opening party after the first shorts competition showing. One of the local clubs, Mansion, hosted our first social interaction with the rest of the attending animation community. Karaoke was the real icebreaker, where animators provided unexpectedly coordinated dancing.
The next morning we had another encounter with a professional in the business: Oscar-winner Chris Landreth, who had submitted a short in the competition. “Subconscious Password” evokes the theme of a game show in an attempt to satirize that moment in a crowded bar when you run into an old friend, you know...“what’s-his-name?” We had brunch with the creator and were able to ask him questions and have one-on-one feedback.
The following day, pass holders were invited to the Animator’s Picnic, a laidback tea party of sorts with bite-sized sandwiches, volleyball on the lawn, and even a pumpkin carving competition between the student groups. Penn submitted an entry and won by popular vote if not by competition legalities. At the picnic we also had the opportunity to meet creators like JG Quintel of Cartoon Network’s The Regular Show and Disney’s Eric Goldberg, famous for animating such characters as Aladdin’s Genie and The Princess and the Frog’s Louis.
In fact, many prominent figures in the community were present for the festivities. Disney, Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, Pixar, and Sony Pictures all made appearances, as well as contributed in festival talks, “master classes,” and demonstrations. The casual atmosphere made networking not only possible, but also enjoyable. Professionals in the business were more than willing to chat about their accomplishments and give advice, as well as make connections with us for future work opportunities. At one such company presentation, Cody Cameron and Kris Pearn of Sony Pictures previewed their new feature length film, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2. Not yet in theaters at the time, we got an insider’s perspective of their developmental process and were able to ask questions.
The Ottawa experience was unlike any other school trip I’ve attended. In addition to the festival, exploring Ottawa uncovered exotic cuisines, from “beaver tails” to poutine. Along the river, we explored the running paths and city streets. Parliament buildings dotted the landscape, juxtaposed with the modern skyscrapers.
Canada isn’t the only country that one can learn more about through OIAF. Due to the international aspect of the competition, groups are flown in from places as disparate as Eastern Asia to Western Europe and even South America. Since the atmosphere at the festival was so open and welcoming, it was easy for us to engage in conversations with attendees from all over and even practice speaking in foreign languages. Due to Canada’s own unique animation culture, the festival this year also showcased a series of films from native Canadian First Nations, Métis, and from Inuit artists in a program called “Welcome to Kanata.” Such showcases allowed us to gain perspective not only in a cultural sense, but also in the sense of art and humanity as a whole.
These types of encounters made traveling to OIAF an amazing, unique experience. As opposed to a classroom setting, OIAF gave us the chance to experience the art world hands-on, and to learn what real world artists are doing and what they are like. Going with other students and faculty at Penn was also extremely beneficial, as those with more experience or knowledge at the festival could make introductions with long-time friends from the industry. The assignments given to us (which included visual diaries and interviews) encouraged these interactions, which might not have been possible if we had gone alone. The festival allowed us the chance to be an individual and pursue our own interests in what to watch and whom to speak with, while also being a small part of a whole, growing closer with the larger group and finding ourselves truly submerged in the world of animation.
The festival was inspiring to us in different ways, with some students hoping to submit their own films to OIAF and similar festivals in the future. This sense of hope, inclusion, and excitement allows students of animation at Penn to look forward to returning every year, and which makes the OIAF trip interesting, fun, and even necessary to those interested in being a part of the field of animation.