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SAFO Preview & Adieu

Begun in 1997 by the Ottawa International Animation Festival as an stopgap measure, the 2003 International Student Animation Festival (SAFO 03) will mark the final edition of what has become the world's premiere student animation festival. Artistic Director Chris Robinson explains it all and gives an update on the Festival's funding crisis.

This year, the Ottawa International Animation Festival underwent a major financial crisis which seemed to endanger its very existence. While the Festival has managed to temporarily weather the crisis, Chris Robinson, its artistic director, now says the Ottawa 2003 International Student Animation Festival (SAFO), to be held October 16-19, “will almost for certain be the last.” This is so despite the fact 1200 films were entered into competition — almost as much as the main festival — and it has also proved very popular.

Robinson says simply, “It's all a question of money. Recruiting has dropped off and although some schools are quite supportive, we need more; and sponsors are not interested in supporting a student festival. Finally, it does not make sense to have a ghetto festival, so we will incorporate it into the main festival, which will now become an annual event.”

Ironically, Robinson says, “Back in 1996, I was essentially told by our boss in Montreal, Serge Losique who also runs the Montreal World Film Festival, that he wanted an annual festival. At the time, I did not feel very confident about doing something every year like Annecy. Instead, I came back with idea of a student festival, which I thought would be great for both recruiters and schools.”

Robinson started working for the Ottawa Festival part time in 1991 and became festival director in 1995. Three years ago, he stepped down as director to become artistic director, while Kelly Neall, his wife, became managing director. During his tenure, he became known for his combative style, in which he challenged long-standing traditions and policies. For instance, he publicly brought to the surface long-standing disputes between ASIFA-International and the major international festivals they sanctioned, which led to a break between Ottawa and ASIFA. Though the rift has since healed, Robinson, who now edits the ASIFA-Canada newsletter, feels “ASIFA is not as relevant anymore.” The break, he feels, enabled him to, “Open the festival up to more of the public. It did not make sense to show to same club all the time.”

Tom by Andreas Hykade
Tom (Germany), the children’s TV series being shown as part of SAFO's Andreas Hykade retrospective.

Telefilm Crisis
It was this combativeness that Robinson brought into play in the recent crisis brought on by a policy change by Telefilm Canada, a government funding agency. He recalls, “On June 16, totally out of the blue, I got a one-page letter in the mail from Telefilm saying, We are going to focus on feature films aimed at large audience. You don't fit in any more, so we are cutting off your funding. Other Canadian festivals got the same letter.'”

'For couple of days, we were completely in shock. Kelly and I were getting a bit tired trying to raise money every year. I thought, To hell with it, we're just going to move on. However, as word got around, we got letters and phone calls of support.”

“It was weird, at the time, we also found out that Kelly O'Brien, who founded the Ottawa Festival in 1976, died in early May. Given the combination of all those things, along with my stubbornness, we decided to fight. We really went to bat, contacting both local and federal politicians, as well as the entire animation community, which gained us both national and local attention. A few weeks later, we got our money back for 2003.”

“We are now out of the woods,” he says, “but I suspect we will be back in the woods again, as Telefilm is still pursuing the same policy. However, we have had an offer from a Canadian studio who came to us and said, 'If it comes down to it, we will take over.'”

Though Robinson remains cautiously optimistic about the future of the Ottawa Festival, he says, 'I suspect either Kelly or I us will be leaving the festival after 2004, because of the economics. If one of us had another job, then the festival closing would not be such a hardship.”

Parker's Mood
Parker’s Mood, a work in progress by juror Oscar Grillo based on the music of Charlie Parker, to be shown as part of SAFO's Grillo retrospective.

As to the forthcoming edition of SAFO, Robinson notes, “There are way more entries this time around. In 2001 there were about 850 versus 1200 this year. In comparison, the main festival had between 1200-1300 in 2000, while last year we had just over 1700.' However, there will be only 75 films shown in competition, with four panoramas: Canadian, 3D, and 2 international, featuring 80 films in all.

In addition to the individual competition, there is a school competition, in which six schools will be competing for Best School Award. Robinson notes, “There will be three screenings for this award, with two schools sharing each program; each school has 35 minutes to show the best work from the last year or two. The Royal College of Art has always won, but CalArts may dethrone them this year.”

Evil of Dracula

Evil of Dracula by SAFO jury member Martha Colburn.

The jury this year includes Marcel Jean, head of the French Animation Studio of the National Film Board of Canada, Martha Colburn, American independent filmmaker who lives in Holland, Argentine-born animator Oscar Grillo, who is now based in the UK, Richard O'Connor, a producer with The Ink Tank in New York, and Signe Baumane, the Latvian filmmaker who now lives in New York.

The selection of Colburn as juror is an example of how Robinson tries to, “Consciously bring unsung people in. Martha Colburn is totally from outside the animation community. She has made a whole slew super 8 collages which are both personal and funny — wacky to say the least. They are not up to technical standards many festivals want, and is more known in experimental film circles.”

Le Masque Du Diable
Le Masque Du Diable, which is being shown as part of the Jean_François Laguionie retrospective.

In addition to competition and panorama screenings, there are a wide range of events. On Friday, there is the 2nd Teacher's Symposium, a day-long conference attended by animation teachers from around the world featuring a keynote address by filmmaker and historian John Canemaker, who heads the animation program at New York University. Thursday is Career Day, which Robinson notes is, “New this year and aimed more at high school students, and features such things as a panel on what to look at in animation school.”

“On Saturday and Sunday,” he adds, “there is a mix of workshops, including several on production, Ellen Besen will give one on storytelling in animation, while Oscar Grillo has a Meet the Masters class.”

In terms of retrospectives and special screenings, Robinson says. “What I try to do is showcase people who have an independent quality to them, but who have also succeeded in the industry. Oscar Grillo is a good example, where we are showing a mix of the commercials and short films he has done. There is also a retrospective of the work of Andreas Hykabe, whose Ring of Fire won the Grand Prix at the 2000 Ottawa Festival. He's made a few independent films and music videos, is in his 30s who, and since he has been at school, he is good guy for students become aware of.”

During its short run, SAFO has clearly become the leading international student animation festival. The sheer size of the submissions this year is testimony to the explosive growth of animation schools around the world. It can only be hoped the qualities which made it such a draw for students and the public will continue as it becomes incorporated into the Ottawa Festival proper.

-- Harvey Deneroff
October 3, 2003

2003 by Harvey Deneroff







Chris Robinson
Chris Robinson, artistic director of the Ottawa International Animation Festival and SAFO.

Here's some images from films in competition at SAFO 03:

How to Cope With Death
How to Cope With Death (Tandem Films, UK) by Ignacio Ferreras, being shown in the First Film category.

Flaschko — Der Mann in der Heizdecke (Flaschko — The Man in the Electric Blanket)
(Austria), by Nicolas Mahler, being shown in the First Film category.

Dangerous Walk
Dangerous Walk (Studio School ‘Shar,’ Russia), by Elena Dyatyeva, being shown in the Post-Secondary Graduate Films category.

Ski Jumping Pairs
Ski Jumping Pairs (Digital Hollywood, Japan) by Riichiro Mashima, being shown in the First Film category.

Post Mark Lick
Post Mark Lick (Royal College of Art, UK) by Sonia Bridge, being shown in the Post-Secondary Graduate Films category.

Jurannessic (Gobelins), by Simon Andriveau, Yann Avenati, Hervé Barbereau, Louis Clichy and In Ah Roediger, being shown in the Post-Secondary Graduate Films category.

Inside Out
Inside Out (Korean Academy of Animation Arts, Korea), by Jeon Young-chan, being shown in the Post-Secondary Graduate Films category.