​Avoid Eye Contact - Best of New York Animation in Krakow

Here're my New York Animation notes for Etiuda&Anima Festival catalogue:

It’s probably not an understatement to say that New York City has one of the most vibrant and thriving animation communities in the world.  The reasons for this are multiple:

1. There used to be an amazing amount of animation jobs in the city (Nickelodeon, MTV, Little Airplane, Animation Collective, etc.) Perhaps not so much now, but animators stay here because –

2. We have a very excellent chapter of ASIFA-East that organizes screenings and meet-ups every month, and an annual festival of work from its members. When people see each other on monthly basis, it creates the sense of a community, involvement and support.

3. New York independent animators don’t compete with each other for funding (generally, the funding for arts or animation in the U.S. is scarce, so there is nothing to fight over) but instead we compete with each other over who will make a better film, we challenge each other and we support each other with advice, tips and animation tools.

4. There are at least five colleges in NYC that teach animation – so there are plenty of interns/apprentices for independent animators to employ which is a good reason to open an independent animation studio in New York. Also students have a lot of youthful enthusiasm for animation as a sophisticated form of self-expression. Enthusiasm is infectious.

5. New York City is a source of endless inspiration for stories.  Also, because everybody in NYC is constantly busy and short on time, we New Yorkers value time more than anything.  As a result, good sense of timing for NY animators becomes visceral. Timing is part of our minds, our bodies, and our essences.  That’s why some of the best animated films from NY may not have perfect design or the most amazing concepts, but they have timing that will make you laugh or cringe, and you walk away thinking you just watched a perfect film.

6. We in New York have the beacon of independent animation – Bill Plympton.  This beacon shows you the way to be an indie animator (create short films that connect with audiences and make a lot of them, consistently) but it also warns you not to come too close to the cliff, where the beacon stands on. It can ruin your life - to be an indie animator and consistently produce films you must give up on aspects of normal human life, like having friends, family and hobbies.

I don’t know any independent NYC animator who hasn’t looked at Bill and, at least once in their life, said, “That looks easy, I can do it.” And then lunged into making indie short films. But then they had to stop after a few years because they got married and/or had children and had to find a better way to pay the rent.  No one else can do what Bill does (he is unique) but thanks to his example and our aspirations to be like him we have a lot of independent animated films made in New York. 

For these reasons, the community of NYC animators is so tightly knit and supportive that one day (in 2004) a bunch of us got together and published a DVD of our work, called “Avoid Eye Contact”.  It was so successful (2,000 DVDs sold in one year) that we released “Avoid Eye Contact” Volume 2 in 2005. 

Since then, DVD’s have fallen out of fashion, and we animators/artists have proven yet again that we are more interested in making films than selling them.  But the energy of cooperation and innovation is still there, because that is what New York City is about.

For Program 1, I selected 14 films that are my favorites from the two “Avoid Eye Contact” volumes.  The films are perhaps on the older side (Plympton's “One of Those Days” is from 1988) but since animation doesn’t age like other films, they are still classic.

Programs 2 and 3 were put together exclusively for Etiuda&Anima and they consist of films never screened at Etuida&Anima. There are several things that are striking about the work for in those programs– first, a lot of these shorts take place in strange spaces, for example - “Terrible Alpha 9”(Jake Armstrong), “Pangs” (Wendy Cong Zhao), “Egg” (Jack Wedge), “Mirage” (Youngwoong Jang) and “Wandering Eye” (Edwin Chavez).  It probably can be explained by New York City being a strange place with its own rules that are not immediately accessible to a newcomer and the city can seem like an alien planet at first. Note, “Wandering Eye” was hand drawn on index cards while the animator was commuting to school on subway.

To counter that, there are a couple of films that explain this strange place called New York – “Concrete Jumble” (Gary Leib) and “The Lost Tribes” (Andy and Carolyn London) - they give the audience a little bit of local history and context.  Then there are films that are strongly, unapologetically female and even raunchy, like “Teat Beat of Sex” (Signe Baumane), “Boobatary” (Leah Shore), “Cee Cee’s Bedtime Stories” (Joy Buran and Noelle Melody) and “Everybody’s Pregnant” (Debra Solomon).  Their unabashed revealing of the most private elements of a female life (body functions, having sex, being infertile, getting high or drunk) may come from the experiences of being part of the masses moving through the streets and mass transit of New York which erases your feeling that your privacy is sacred.  You are just one of the 8 million humans living here, and everyone has the exact same problems as you do, so get over it and share your shame and private thoughts with everyone else. It’s only a stereotype that big cities alienate its residents from each other. New York does just the opposite - it connects people and teaches us to love other humans (you really can’t live in New York if you don’t love humans and their diversity).

And, of course, as in any place around the world, in New York, too, there are inevitably films made about universal themes like food (“Gastronomic Shark”, the Polish premiere of Bill Plympton’s short film) and aspirations for love (“Hedgehug” by Dan Pinto, “Video 69” by Ingo Raschka). Love is everywhere, even in New York.

The notorious neurosis of New Yorkers is depicted in “Something Left, Something Taken” (Ru Kuwahata and Max Porter)– and since the filmmakers in the film also make fun of themselves, it shows a very typical New York humor – the self-deprecating kind.

In the end, without the compassion and understanding of other human beings the life in New York would not be possible, and that’s what animated doc “A Life with Asperger’s” (Jaime Ekkens) is teaching us.

If you can’t come New York, then New York must come to you!  These 3 programs are showing some of the best New York animated shorts created in the last 20 years. This is your chance to experience all the inner workings of the minds of New York and New Yorkers. It will make you laugh, it will make you cry and we hope you’ll leave the screening inspired to make a film of your own.

I'll post the whole list of the New York films screened at Etiuda&Anima tomorrow.

Post-Election Travel

Where do you go when the world around you is collapsing? You usually go to see your Mom in vague hopes to return to her womb and stay there until the bad weather blows itself out on its own.

So I packed 7 t-shirts and went to see my family in Latvia. They were happy to see me, dotting, fretting and cooking local delicacies for me. I ate elk meat sausages steeped in duck fat and when the family went to sleep, I stayed in the kitchen checking emails on my laptop and the panic inducing news about the president-elect forming his new cabinet.

But before long my secret was out.

- You used to make films, - my Dad said one morning. - Now all you do is read about politics.

- Why your laptop is open again? - my Sister asked at the second breakfast. - All those political news are making you sick.

- You know too much about politics! - my Mom shouted before lunch. - This does you no good. I can see clearly - it is an addiction. Stop it!

I cried and I argued that this was my vacation, that I also sometimes check business related emails and that social media is part of what I do as an artist. But more I cried and defended myself, more it became obvious to my family that I indeed had a big problem. They advised to fight the addiction. So I closed the laptop and didn't work on the Thanksgiving blog post I wanted to write.

They were right - all that crying I did in private during nights definitely was not healthy. Something inside me was falling apart to correctly reflect the falling apart world outside me.

Then I went to Poland, to Etiuda&Anima festival in Krakow.

It is a festival dedicated to juxtaposing animated films with live action and documentary etudes, with a special focus on students and their needs. I was at the festival in 2015, doing a presentation called "Autoportraitwhere I had to draw and show my creative process in front of 120 people. A nerve-wracking experience because I am no good at drawing (especially not in front of other people!) but the festival liked it and invited me back with "Rocks In My Pockets". They also asked me to compile and present 3 programs of the best New York animated shorts.

So now I was in Poland, a country that a year before had similar election results as we just had in USA. Instantly, politics became the main subject of any conversation I had. I wanted to know how Polish people, especially women, cope under a very conservative government.

- The politicians are changing the laws, so that is very bad, - one person explained. - But on every day level, the institutions and organizations like universities, festivals, support groups etc are still there, so you don't run into black holes of cultural destruction.

- Did you participate in the women's protests in early October? - I asked a young festival volunteer. The Black Monday had inspired me and gave me a hope that we can do something if important laws we care about are going under an axe.

- You bet I did! - she said. - I don't like abortions but banning them is not a solution, so I had to join the protest. And we won!

- The women won the Black Monday! - I told to a levelheaded projectionist. - So we, people, have power.

- Yes, but it was only one law, - he said glumly. - The government is repealing 100 laws a day and there is nothing we can do. Can't protest every day.

Nearly every screening at the festival was packed and films were excellent. The Best of New York Animation program had a great audience, too. In solidarity with Polish women I wore black each day at the festival. Maybe one day we'll need Polish women to show solidarity with us. What would be the color of our protest?

Presenting Best of New York Animation program at Etiuda&Anima

Presenting Best of New York Animation program at Etiuda&Anima

Surprisingly, a lot of people showed up for "Rocks In My Pockets" screening.

Crowd gathers at Kijów Centrum cinema before "Rocks In My Pockets" screening

Crowd gathers at Kijów Centrum cinema before "Rocks In My Pockets" screening

I was pleased, but also stressed out. What if those nice people hate the film?

- Why are you here? - I ask "Rocks In My Pockets" audience. - Why do you want to see a funny film about depression? Don't you have better things to do?

- Why are you here? - I ask "Rocks In My Pockets" audience. - Why do you want to see a funny film about depression? Don't you have better things to do?

We, as a society, are only as good as our artists who challenge us, train us to think critically. The moment artists stop to cry at nights about election results and stop caring about something other than their own success and creature comforts, we are screwed. 

But we also need festivals like Etiuda&Anima that are crucial meeting points between artists and audience. It probably works in little steps, too small to see from Space, but it is good to know it is there.

THANK YOU, Etiuda&Anima, for your work!



Post-Election Question: Back to Work - Why?

I don't know about you, but when I see the free newspaper called amNY I pick it up. First and foremost, it has a really good horoscopes column. I use it as my practical guide for daily activities. How could you not obey an advise such as: "Leo, everybody around you, including this horoscope, has a bullshit opinion on what you should do next. But stick to your own plan of action and you will arrive to the correct destination". I always end up in my studio, working.

The other thing about amNY is that is it made of paper really suitable for paper mache. In regards to this the amNY is my secret gold mine. Now, the question is - what do you make out of this paper?

"The Marriage Project", my new feature film about one woman's journey through her marriages both real and imagined told with the help of Neuroscience and Mythology Sirens, needs a sample footage to show to potential investors and donors. To make it happen I have to make bunch of props and sets. I started with a pattern cut out of paper, like this:

Then I added layers and layers of soaked in glue AM paper. It was really heartbreaking, because each AM paper contained old news about 2016 presidential campaign and by this time we all knew who won and I was not happy. In fact, I was outraged, angry, afraid, worried and in a full go-to-battle mode. Opening the paper's page, putting it on the table and caressing the pictures of the 2 candidates with my dripping in glue hands inevitably triggered the feelings of resentment and resistance every time. Then  I would tear the paper in strips and put them on the paper mache coat, like this: 

Then I covered the paper layers with black paint:

And finally, the layer of pink paint:

Maybe it is therapeutic to relive trauma over and over again and then cover it with color and joy. But I am wary of normalizing the new Executive Branch of extremists. Is going back to my work normalizing it?

I also struggle to work when I compare the scope of the disaster in front of us with the ineffectuality of my own teeny toothless existence. Is it really prudent to continue to work on a little film about a woman who is trying to define herself and her gender in the world? Does it matter - the world is about to end?

Post Elections

Now that we know how it all played out I keep thinking of the growing urgency me and my canvassing partner had when knocking on 197 doors on Election Day. It seemed oddly familiar, almost like a dark fairy tale.

Knock... Knock... Knock...

- Yes?

- Have you voted today?

- Nah. I saw the polls had long lines.

- It is very important that you vote today, please make sure you go.

- She is going to win anyway.

- It is not that certain. She may lose Pennsylvania by 6 votes and you don't want to be one of them.

- No one I know is voting.

- Please go and vote.

- I'll see how I feel in 15 minutes.

Knock. Knock. Knock.

- You Hillary people?

- Yes. 

- Go away. I am not voting this time. I don't want to be responsible for anything of what any of them do when elected.

Knock knock knock.

- Don't you see my t-shirt? I am a Bernie supporter. Your candidate is a criminal.

- If Trump gets elected you can say goodbye to gay marriage and reproductive rights.

- I don't care.

- What if you can't get birth control pills anymore?

- I do not care! Get off my porch!

Knock knock knock!!

- Why are you people bothering me? 

- We just...

- You call me, you knock on my doors! I can't rest!

- This is the most important election of our times.

- I won't stand for this major invasion of my privacy! You are working against your candidate! Too many knocks! Too many calls! Leave me alone!



- Have you voted today?

- Oh darling, but I have been to prison.

- It doesn't matter. By Pennsylvania law you still have the right to vote.

- They turned me away today, said I cannot vote.

- It's wrong. Call this number, straighten it out. Please do it soon. Polls close in 45 minutes.

- I don't know if I'll have time, my mother is sick and I need to take care of her.

On the 156th knock I felt like that rooster who kept shouting alarm but a thick fog raised from the bog and drowned his calls and ability to see clearly.

On the bus, on our way back to New York, the news came that Hillary lost Pennsylvania. My first thought was: This is the end of my love affair with America. But a millisecond later I realized that no, this was not a love affair. This is a marriage, a commitment I am obliged to honor.

But it now seems like a marriage to a person who has Alzheimer's - do they still remember you and your precious love relationship? Can they respond to your pleas for affection?



Worried Eye: Another Failure

"Worried Eye" is the last of my 4 strange shorts that I failed to make into one nice longer short.

It is only 9 seconds long and I wish I had more time and money to expand the idea into 9 minute film. But maybe some ideas deserve to die this miserable death of dissection so that there is space at film festivals for other people's better ideas?

I am very worried and this keeps me up at night. If I keep my eye looking out for me while I sleep maybe I can catch a wink?

Life Drawing with Minerva

While animating my short "Dentist" I experienced existential crisis. All the animators around me talked about the joy of drawing but all I felt all day long at my drawing table was dread and anxiety. 

- Maybe because they have studied art? - I thought. - My Philosophy training only helps with conceiving concepts (which is 12% of time invested in the project) but not the daily grind of making 70 drawings a day (which is 80% of the time put into an animated project). My drawings suck!

I felt limitation of my drawing skills. I only drew my Dentist character from the profile because I could not imagine his face from front and I could not draw him scratching his ass because I didn't know what hands do when confronted with such task. 

But committing to learn to draw was frightening because I still had open wounds from learning-in-school trauma. Every single English teacher I had (all 5) told me I was particularly bad at languages and would never speak English. It hindered my language learning until I was 29. I was also told that I draw like a child and will never pass the level of a 5 year old.

Still, the desire to get better at what I do forced me to overcome the fear of of inadequacy and get to Spring Studio where I was greeted by Minerva, the artist who runs it. She has an open, kind and warm personality with ability to be stern at times, like a mother who has to manage 135 children with various degrees of learning disabilities. She cares for each but needs to impose a structure so that each of us can find own place and thrive. It is a community of different people from various backgrounds (I even met a dentist there!) sharing the passion for drawing and getting better at eye-hand coordination. 

The Spring Studio provided me with a safe space where I could to draw and fail without the rest of the world commenting how bad I was. No one tried to look over my shoulder and correct my mistakes until I was ready and asked for it.

The sessions "Learn to Draw" are on Wednesday nights at 6 PM, with short poses. Every 20 minutes the model takes a break and Minerva gives a 5 minute lecture on how to approach drawing a human body. I love her insights and wanted to share with you 3 of those lectures:

It has been 10 years since I started going to Spring Studio life drawing. My style of drawing and animation has changed. I am able to imagine my characters rotating in space and I can draw their faces in profile as well as from their front.  I am now better at making my characters to scratch their asses and I am finally enjoying the long days of drawing.

The love and gratitude I feel for Minerva and community of artists at Spring Studio is immense. People and communities like this make New York great. 



Molar Cold: Another Failed Attempt to Make a Clever Short Film

The clever short film I wanted to make in the summer of 2015 was about various body parts traveling through hostile dangerous environment to a reunion. Of course, I didn't have time to make it, just like I don't have time to write the clever novel I conceived in Spring of 2015 about several giant hogweed plants communicating with their roots under the ground plotting a conspiracy to take over a small country. 

However, I started my efforts with the best intentions to finish the film, but was distracted with having to raise money for my new feature film (raising money for an animated feature film that's not for children is like trying to squeeze milk from a granite rock).

Here's the crumb of that great short film that didn't quite exit my mind:

Only The Dumbest Sh!t I Ever Saw Film Festival appreciated the 25 seconds of this failure.

But I dare you to imagine the film I wanted to make: An eye on a fragile row-boat is traveling through a cold ocean filled with molars that like icebergs are trying to sink its flimsy boat. The eye is afraid that the molars will chew on it. Despite the fear and cold, the eye continues on, because it has to reunite with the other eye that is probably lost in the land of lusty starving tongues. When the two eyes finally meet, the teeth join them, finding their seats set in a jaw. Tongue finds its place in a throat, nose arrives to hug a forehead, thousands of hair strands like thousands of snakes creep up and set their roots on top of the head.  Bones, liver, kidneys, intestines - all find their place. And then the skin arrives.

- We are all different, - the skin says. - But from now on we have the same purpose.

And the skin wraps the organs into one wholesome awesome body.


Comprehending Metaphors of “THE RED TURTLE”

Please watch the film's trailer:

I watch most animated films, shorts or features, from the point of view of an animator who works with 2-D images and deeply roots for the revival of the mainstream public’s respect and love for drawn animation. The question that has been asked since around 2000 – “Is 2-D animation dead?” irritates me. Children will always draw because the act of drawing is an active act of comprehending the world and they will always want to see their drawings move. As an adult, one draws because it is an immediate, direct translation of a thought. To put those drawings in an animated movement is to share with other people the inner life of one's mind. To make a 3D image, on the other hand, one has to plan and plot ahead, so it is not as direct and immediate as drawing, but it is satisfying for an audience as it realistically represents an imaginary world.

SPOILER ALERT!  See “The Red Turtle” before continuing to read!

It was hard for me to not view “The Red Turtle” in the context of 2-D animators' struggles, as it brought to the surface this pressing question – “What is 2-D animation the most effective at doing?”  The film simultaneously fails and succeeds at making a case for why 2-D animation is great.

Let’s start with its premise.  In a storm, a man gets thrown on the beach of a faraway island.  He tries to get away from the island on a flimsy raft, but each time, the raft is destroyed by some unseen living force from below. On his third try, he sees that it’s a huge red turtle.

Back on the island, he is still seething when he sees the turtle climb on the beach. In a fury, the man grabs a bamboo stick and bangs the turtle on its head, turns it over on its back and lets it die. Once the turtle is dead, it turns into a beautiful sleeping woman, who eventually wakes up to have sex with the man and bear him a child. 

At this point in the film, you understand that this semi-realistic depiction of the man and the island is actually an aspiring metaphor for coupledom. One thing you should know about me – I love metaphors.  They are short-cuts to a deeper meaning of life events, and they can be understood on the intuitive level, bypassing the rationale of a logical mind.

The director’s (Michael Dudok de Wit) Oscar-winning short, “Father and Daughter” is one of the finest examples of such an approach – the story about a daughter's life-long waiting for her father touched my deepest emotions without me understanding how it got there. “The Red Turtle”, on the other hand, left me emotionally uninvolved. Maybe because putting most of the story weight on a metaphor doesn't work in a feature length format?  A 90 minute film requires some connection between its audience and the film's characters. Watching "The Red Turtle" I was given no slightest idea about the psychology or motivations of the main character. I couldn’t feel for the man, because I didn’t know who he was, nor where he was coming from, so I was unsympathetic to his attempts to get away from the island. His hitting the turtle turned me off completely. When the metaphor finally revealed itself I was cold to its charms. 

On the other hand I noted a tension between the film being a fairy-tale metaphor with surreal elements (a dead turtle turns into a woman) and its aspirations be realistic. The tension became obvious to me when the man and the turtle-woman started to live together and had only one child. One would realistically expect that a man and a woman living on a deserted island without contraceptives would have at least 12 - 16 offspring. "Did they have sex only once?" - I couldn't help but ponder. "Or he is pulling out?" But that thought was a distraction, caused by the film's desire to ground the metaphor in physical reality. 

It was obvious that the artists did a thorough visual research on plants and animals, but I wished for more surreal images, characters and environments. The attempts to realistically translate the beauty of an exotic island into 2-D images fell flat on me. 2-D animation will never be as good as amazing National Geographic documentary footage, or the animated 3-D depiction of the Amazon rain forest in “Rio”.  To try to achieve that in 2-D is, in my opinion, futile and ridiculous. It also distracted from what the film really was - a metaphor. 2-D is better at something else. Early in the film, the man had three short dreams – each of them surreal, imaginative, symbolic, moody and powerful. It charged me with the hope of what the film could be, but the man always woke up and we were back on the island that was trying to imitate 3-D. 

Effectively, "The Red Turtle" uses no dialogue, it is one of the film's strengths. I love when ideas can be communicated without language. I also found using shadows very effective.

After the man couples up with the turtle-woman, the film slides into a cliché. They get a child. The child grows up. He wants to discover the world and leaves the island. His parents drift into old age and eventually the man peacefully dies from being too old to live. Now we get a twist in this coupledom metaphor: after the man dies the old woman turns into a red turtle and goes back into the water of the Ocean. This is a comment on womanhood: womanhood is eternal, mysterious force that outlives men. 

The film seems to say: Women are mythical creatures - animals that are able to briefly become human. I am sorry to say that in 2016 such views/metaphors don't do any good to us, women trying to achieve equal place in society. Women are human 24 hours every day of our lives, and, just like men, we feel pain and can die and be killed. Idolizing womanhood is just as belittling as judging women on their looks.

The more fitting metaphor of 2016 is a female protagonist who, after navigating challenges in a maze, finds herself facing the blood thirsty Minotaur

The Making of a Man: Failure to Make a Film

Here's the second of the 4 videos I made for The Dumbest Sh!t I Ever Saw Festival. This is a half-baked thought of being a half person. The thought flew into my mind on an airplane when I landed in LAX, going from Melbourne back to New York. I thought of developing it into a nice finished short film about body parts floating apart in a an endless cold sea of loneliness when suddenly they are bestowed with a sense of purpose and come together forming one whole body.

Unfortunately, the moment I landed in New York I was pressed to continue to promote the feature film I made a year before ("Rocks In My Pockets"), write a script for a new film ("The Marriage Project") and make a living so that starvation didn't cause me falling apart in separate body parts floating in a cold sea of Death and Destruction.

So I didn't have time to make the short film. It stalled at a stage of various unfinished parts.

Thankfully, the Dumbest Sh!t I Ever Saw Festival was willing to accept anything as shitty as an unfinished body parts of an unfinished film, so I sent them this. I hope you don't judge it too harshly. It's only 21 seconds.

Synopsis: A man is only a blind half before he accidentally comes across another half. The greatest of the accidents.


How to Close the Gap Between Animator and Audience

Have you been at an animation screening where afterwards audience members walk towards the exit whispering to each other: - That was the dumbest shit I ever saw?

I've always wondered why there is such a disconnect between the animators making their films and the audiences who deem their work stupid. Yes, we, animators, mostly live in our heads where anything is possible and we mostly mingle with other animators who get our strange sense of humor and even encourage it. But why can't 'normal' people get it, too? Why is so difficult for them to open their minds to stuff that is bizarre and surprising in an abnormal way?

Thankfully, there is now a film festival that is working on closing this abyss of misunderstanding between animators and audiences. To make sure no one missed the point of the festival it calls itself The Dumbest Sh!t I Ever Saw , priding to be the animation anti-festival. It is organized by two super talented animators Joy Buran and Noelle Melody who are not averse to strange and bizarre on top of having an excellent sense of humor.

I made several very short films for the festival, because it is fun to make something without feeling the scorching breath of an audience on your neck: - Is this good enough? Is this funny in the 'normal' way? Is the story 'clear' enough? Does this have a purpose? etc

Fuck it. Sometimes I just want to be free and make shit without any concern for comprehension of others.

So, here it is, one of my shorts: "The Origin of the Words". If you don't get it, it's OK. It's only 22 seconds short and you can move on towards the rest of your life. But if you'd like to know what this film means, ask in the comments, I'll be happy to explain. Thank you!